Hufanga Sets USC’s Tone

Ryan Kartje (LA Times)  —  It had only been a few months since his collarbone cracked the first time, when Talanoa Hufanga slammed into the ground and felt that familiar, searing pain in his shoulder. Right away, he recognized his collarbone was broken again.

His sophomore season was still months away. There was plenty of time to recover. But an extended absence, on the cusp of a possible breakout, seemed an unfortunate setback for the USC safety, whose freshman campaign was cut short in the same fashion.

As it turned out, those two months on the mend would help turn Hufanga into the player he’s become in his second season. Over just four games, Hufanga has established himself as the instinctual centerpiece of USC’s defense, a tackling machine who defends the run like a middle linebacker and the pass like a defensive back.

As USC takes to the road for a rivalry matchup with No. 9 Notre Dame on Saturday, Hufanga leads its defense in tackles per game (10.5), while ranking second among defensive backs nationwide.

“He can play up around the line of scrimmage,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. “He can play in the intermediate part of the field, or he can play in the back part of the field. We’ve had things dialed up for him when he’s available to be in all of those situations.”

He’d shown flashes of that potential a year ago, as he averaged 10 tackles per game in October before breaking his collarbone the first time. But as he spent months sidelined over the course of two collarbone breaks, Hufanga honed in on what he could control.

He dove as deep as he ever had into film study. He wanted to better understand different schemes and offensive systems. He wanted to be more urgent.

So Hufanga tore through hours of tape, watching everything he could, whenever he could. He studied on his phone walking to class. He poured through tape while he ate. He watched before he slept. Without being able to lift or play, film became his sole focus.

“It makes things easier,” Hufanga said. “It puts you in a better position.”

The better positioning has so far been palpable. On Wednesday, Pendergast called him “the key piece [in] unlocking the defense.”

After USC’s upset of Utah this season, coach Clay Helton said he believed the sophomore safety’s 14-tackle performance was one of the best he’s seen at the position in his 10 years at the school.

“He wants to know everything, and he studies everything,” Helton said Thursday. “That’s why you’re going to see him playing on Sundays someday.”

Hufanga isn’t quite so complimentary when asked about his own performance this season. His eyes, his instincts, his urgency — none of it is a finished product, he contends.

“I do think I’ve stepped up,” Hufanga says. “But at the same time, I’m still learning.”

Against Washington on Sept. 28, USC had to learn again what life was like without its rising star at safety, as Hufanga sat out with a concussion and shoulder injury.

Hufanga will play against Notre Dame, after spending the week of practice in a yellow, no-contact jersey. The importance of his return, in such a crucial game, isn’t lost on the rest of USC’s defense, which already views him as a leader.

“It’s huge,” senior defensive end Christian Rector (left) said. “It boosts the confidence of the defense. It’s a guy we can rely on to come up big for us.”

Redshirt decisions

With his recovery from knee surgery taking longer than initially expected, senior linebacker Jordan Iosefa could be a redshirt candidate this season.

Iosefa, who was voted a captain and was expected to play a major role this season, will not play against Notre Dame, after Helton expressed hope before the week off that he might. With only six regular-season games remaining after Saturday, USC will likely hold him out for two of those games, in order to retain an extra season of eligibility.

Helton said that he and Iosefa had already discussed the possibility of taking a redshirt season.

“We want Jordan to have a great last year,” Helton said. “If it’s going to be one of those years where he just gets limited play, I don’t want that for him. He doesn’t want that for himself. Our plan right now is to get the knee healthy, to have the availability to play four games. See where it lies there.

“Obviously we’re not going to burn a kid’s year when he’s got the opportunity to be able to come back and help us next year.”

Helton also announced that junior guard Andrew Vorhees, who lost his starting spot in fall camp, would undergo season-ending surgery on his foot and will also redshirt. He’ll have two more seasons of eligibility upon his return.

latimes.com

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Steveg
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Hufanga has to have a great game and I am sure he is up for it. The difference is how the linebackers take care of the middle and whoever covering the outside. If Stepp does not get 20 carries this week we can probably write this game off.

LawyerJohn
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Breaking news, this just in from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly: “We gotta keep the ball in front of us, limit the big play.” (Truth: This SC freshman is all ours; we got this one) Other lovable football coaches’ cliches: They put their pants on one leg at a time, same as us. (Truth: Yeah, but their pants are 3-times bigger than our guys’) This game with SC is big; of course, all Notre Dame games are big (Truth: That game in November against the basketball school Duke is just as big?) We have a lot of respect for SC… Read more »

Steveg
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LJ is on fire lately.

USCJojo
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Ladies and Gentleman, Lawyer John. 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼 Move over Rodney Dangerfield!

Jamaica
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Hufanga can set the tone of the USC defense alright if he continues to make plays as he has so far. He should be an inspiration to the other defensive players. But so far its the offensive line that sets the tone on how well the team plays. And that hasn’t been a good thing since Sarkisian brought in OL coach Jeff Gott in 2015. Since then it has been mostly downhill on the execution of this position. Without an able OL, you have no consistency in a rushing game, and you risk getting your QB hit a lot. It… Read more »

TrojanRJJ
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I still remember the first SC football game I ever attended. It was 1966; I went as a guest of the family of a close personal friend. I was one year out of a private Catholic High School in La Canada CA (St. Francis). I had gone to St. Mary’s in the Moraga and my friend had gone to ND. His dad was a USC alum. My friend was the school photographer for the ND football team, so the family had an extra ticket, as my friend was on the side lines taking pictures. I then witnessed the Larry Conjar/NIck… Read more »

ATL D.D.S.
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51-0 was my second USC game. I was at an age where I remembered the hot dogs at the game as much as anything. That’s probably why I don’t have pain and frustration lingering from that game in ’66 as I do from other ND losses I had to sit through and witness. I did wonder why I saw so many Catholic Priests walking around Exposition Park before and after the game!