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 said. “It boosts the confidence of the defense. It’s a guy we can rely on to come up big for us.”
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.