Shrine Bowl Interview: Former Rugby Player UCLA OL Atonio Mafi Making The Most Of His Opportunity

At the 2023 East-West Shrine Bowl, UCLA offensive lineman Atonio Mafi stood out as one of the best offensive linemen in the entire group. Just a few years ago though, that would’ve seemed inconceivable, given that Mafi didn’t even start playing offensive line at UCLA until his junior year. Mafi sat down with Steelers Depot at the Shrine Bowl to talk about his journey to becoming an NFL prospect.

When Mafi was growing up, he was a rugby player. He said that experience has given him a level of athleticism other offensive linemen might not have.

“A lot of people say I’m sneaky athletic for how big I am. That definitely, I think, stems from rugby, just playing, being able to run the ball and just try to act like I was a running back or a receiver out on the field.”

Mafi was recruited to UCLA as a defensive lineman, and when he first got to UCLA he tipped the scales at 411 pounds. He weighed in at 338 pounds at the Senior Bowl.

“It was a work in progress throughout the years,” Mafi said about his weight. “This last year was actually the first year we had a nutritionist at UCLA, which gave me the big push I needed to get over the hump.”

Mafi played in 24 games with 14 starts on the defensive line. He registered 44 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, and one sack. Before his junior year, he switched to offense at his own suggestion.

“It was a decision by me. One day I was sitting there and I just felt like, watching the way football has kind of evolved over the last couple years, having the need for a 3-4 nose guard when having a lineman just head up to try and stop the run isn’t really necessary anymore. It’s a lot more air raid offenses and I knew that I wasn’t a pass rusher, so I went up there one day to Coach [Chip] Kelly and just pushed him with the possibility of maybe taking some practice reps at O-Line. He jumped on it right away, said he saw me as an O-Lineman, and he made that move pretty quick.”

32 games as an offensive lineman later, and Mafi, the UCLA record holder for games played with 56, is in a position to be selected in the NFL Draft in April. Mafi said the biggest thing he’s working on is maintaining his weight along with his pass sets. He added that he’s excited to work with NFL nutritionists at the next level. He also has family ties in the NFL, as Cincinnati Bengals and former UCLA tight end Devin Asiasi is his cousin.

“He’s definitely the one that’s in my ear about things,” Mafi said about Asiasi. “He was a big reason why I went to UCLA.”

Mafi said his favorite thing to block is downhill runs. “Just line ‘em up and go head up,” but he’s adaptable to any scheme. He also said he watches the most tape of Quenton Nelson due to his aggressiveness and he grew up a 49ers fan and liked watching former left tackle Joe Staley. Mafi is also of Tongan descent, and he spent his sophomore year of high school in the country.

“Different world out there. It’s a far cry from what America is, far cry from what California is for sure. Just everything I learned living back home, back home in Tonga just taught me to be grateful, and just to make the most out of all the opportunities I have.”

Mafi is making the most out of his opportunity at the Shrine Bowl. He’s been one of the best offensive linemen through the first three practices, despite facing some of the toughest defensive linemen. If the Steelers go guard in the draft, Mafi should be a guy on their list in the middle rounds.

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