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In a Utah fan's head, perhaps it plays out differently: Stevie Tu'ikolovatu spurned his native state and the program he played for since 2009 to head south with USC, one of the classic frontrunners of the Pac-12.

But the reality for Tu'ikolovatu was, in the month-and-a-half between announcing his intention to go to USC, and his actual acceptance, there was a limbo period — which may be a gentle term for what it really was.

"I stayed with some family here, I would sleep in my car — I was basically homeless," he said. "I was just waiting it out and working out. … It was kind of frustrating."

For the 25-year-old East High grad, the jump to USC wasn't so much a turncoat move as a risk. He wanted a chance to play, and he saw that the Trojans were in need of a defensive tackle. It helped that his wife has family in Southern California, and the school has a master's program in gerontology, his field of interest.

He knows that won't make him a popular guy when he comes back to Salt Lake City this week, suiting up for the Trojans instead of the Utes in Friday night's game. But with 60 to 70 family members and friends rooting for him (or at least seeing him) in the Rice-Eccles stands, he feels comfortable knowing someone will have his back.

"I'm super-excited to play in front of the home crowd, and travel back there," he said. "It'll be weird, but I think it will be more fun than weird."

So far, Tu'ikolovatu has been granted the playing time he sought. He's started all three games for USC (1-2), and has been credited with nine tackles.

For the most part, the Utes haven't been very interested in talking about their former player — most notably Kyle Whittingham saying this week the Utes are more worried about the players they still have. The hole Tu'ikolovatu left has been filled admirably by senior Pasoni Tasini, a 6-foot-3, 295-pound tackle who has 10 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Fellow lineman Hunter Dimick recently called Tasini "the most underrated player I've ever seen here."

"He's 300 pounds and moves at least as well as me," he said of Tasini. "He's just an absolute monster. Sooner or later, he's going to have that breakout game that everybody sees. But he's really quiet, has a great work ethic, and is a really football player."

And yet, though Utah has moved on, Tu'ikolovatu insists there's still warmth there. He still FaceTimes his Utah teammates, and said he's excited to see them again.

The reception won't be warm, perhaps even less so after Tu'ikolovatu told Los Angeles media that he was giving scouting reports on each Utah offensive lineman's weakness. But while he's looking forward to his homecoming, he never expected it to be easy.

"I told [USC teammates] to not be surprised how crazy it gets," he said. "It's probably the loudest place I've ever played in."

Three happy running backs?

The Utes made a solid case last week that running back by committee can work when Utah's three backs combined for 248 yards on the ground and three touchdowns. But one might wonder: How long can splitting carries stand?

According to the backs themselves, indefinitely.

"In that game, it worked perfectly," freshman Zack Moss said. "We got exactly what we wanted out of it, and we all looked great. You can't stop a three-headed monster."

That was how it worked against San Jose State in a 34-17 win, with Moss, Armand Shyne and Troy McCormick each getting a touchdown and going over 60 yards. The roles also seemed more clearly defined: McCormick as the elusive speed back, Shyne as the battering ram runner, and Moss somewhere in between the two.

Both Moss and Shyne told the Tribune the arrangement is working well. Moss said he was the "second guy there" to celebrate when Shyne scored his first touchdown not long after Moss scored himself.

"Everyone's getting their touches, everyone's playing, everyone's contributing, and that's what's important," Moss said. "As long as it's working, we're good."

Stepping in and stepping up

Watching film this week, it was easy for Jackson Barton to spot something he needs to fix.

On one play against San Jose State on Saturday, the tackle pulled around to block, hit a linebacker and knocked him over. On a similar play a little later in the game, the 6-foot-7 sophomore pulled around and missed.

"I didn't quite get to him fast enough," Barton recalled. "I just need to learn to be energized throughout the whole game because it's different for me playing the whole game. It's different for me."

Barton had been part of a rotation on the offensive line through the first two games of the season, but with tackle Sam Tevi out last week because of an injury, Barton was given his first start of the year.

If Barton is back in a rotation this week, the tackle won't be bothered.

"The rotation's good. I actually get to see game time. I'm not going to complain," he said. "I would love to be starting, but if he's going to give me a shot at being a rotation tackle — shoot, I'll take it."

Barton has drawn praise from coaches and teammates for his play in the first three weeks. Senior center J.J. Dielman said he's seen "tremendous" improvement from both Barton and first-year starter Garett Bolles in the first three games. He's more impressed that Barton was ready for the spot start.

"Jackson's been here for a little bit, but there's nothing like playing experience," he said. "Being able to come in and start on the fly like that, you have to give Jackson a lot of credit."

Barton hopes he made his case for playing time going forward.

"It was my time to show … [Whittingham] can rely upon me," Barton said. "I feel like I did that."

He added, "There's always something I want to improve on. I'm a perfectionist. … It's not there yet, but I'm going to get there."

Tribune reporter Aaron Falk contributed to this story.

Twitter: @kylegoon —

USC at No. 24 Utah

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