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Some tough love from coaching staff may be all USC’s Palaie Gaoteote needs

USC linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV celebrates a sack with defensive lineman Christian Rector and linebacker Cameron Smith.
USC linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV, center, celebrates a sack with defensive lineman Christian Rector, left, and linebacker Cameron Smith during the first half against Notre Dame on Nov. 24, 2018 at the Coliseum.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Todd Orlando sneaked in his answer first.

During a Wednesday morning video call with the first-year USC defensive coordinator, junior linebacker Palaie Gaoteote and junior safety Isaiah Pola-Mao, a reporter asked the players for their early impressions of Orlando.

The coach smirked and piped up.

“Very nice guy,” he said.

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Gaoteote and Pola-Mao laughed at Orlando’s comment. Gaoteote’s real answer, however, was much more revealing about the reasons USC’s defense is feeling so optimistic entering the season — renewed hope that has much to do with a strong preseason from Gaoteote himself.

“I would describe coach Orlando as a straight shooter,” said Gaoteote, who has been identified as a training camp standout by both Orlando and head coach Clay Helton. “One of the biggest things he preaches is honesty. Ever since he’s been here, he’s been nothing but honest with us. That’s just been what drives us, to just get better for him.”

Players will have tomorrow off to vote on Election Day, but the focus is still on USC’s opener against Arizona State on Saturday.

The Trojans have long expected big things from Gaoteote. He arrived as a five-star recruit in the class of 2018 and last year started the team’s first six games. But injuries limited him in the second half of the season and, despite finishing with 58 tackles (three for loss), he also missed 14 of 68 tackle attempts according to Pro Football Focus.

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This year, Gaoteote, who goes by his “EA” nickname, will be asked to help anchor an inside linebacker group that lost Jordan Iosefa and Solomon Tuliaupupu for the season with knee injuries. Based on what they’ve seen this preseason, USC’s coaches are confident he’s more than ready for such a role.

“EA has always been an explosive athlete, a raw talent, and Todd has been really, really hard on him, to be honest with you,” Helton said, adding: “He’s taking hard coaching, he’s accepting hard coaching. That’s what great players do, the ability to take advice and transfer it over to team situations. This is a really good relationship. Probably as good of a thing that could’ve happened to EA in his career, to be honest with you.”

Orlando, who is also serving as the Trojans’ linebacker coach, was asked about that relationship Wednesday.

“There’s a lot of things that are behind the scenes with it, trust me,” he said. “You’re gonna butt heads a little bit, there’s gonna be some hard love. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that goes into it.”

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Todd Orlando will be entering his first season at USC's defensive coordinator.
(Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

But Orlando also believes there is another, much simpler reason for Gaoteote’s impressive preseason.

“At the end of the day, he’s running to the football as hard as you can,” Orlando said. “He’s doing that on his own, not because I’m saying it. I think it’s just, when it finally clicks in to say, ‘You know what, I can be really good’ — it’s the player.”

The status of USC’s other inside linebacker position is less clear. Junior Kana’i Mauga, who last season was fourth on the team with 61 tackles but also received Pro Football Focus’ lowest rating among Pac-12 linebackers, is expected to get plenty of snaps. Sophomore Ralen Goforth could also be an important contributor.

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“Ray’s a pro now,” Orlando said, noting he recently sent a picture of Goforth’s prep work to the rest of the linebacker group.

“I usually go down to our meeting rooms pretty early and on his desk where he sits, his playbook was open, the Arizona State two-deep was right next to him and his iPad was open watching cut-ups. I love the way he approaches everything.”

How might playing time between those two be divided?

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“We’ll see how it plays out,” Orlando said. “Kana’i has a lot of experience. He’s a guy that we feel comfortable with, so we’ll see how this thing plays out on Saturday. And that’ll be based on who’s running hot.”

What is clear: Gaoteote will need to be the backbone of the group, likely asked to carry the biggest load during the team’s abbreviated seven-game season.

“He’s just taking his game to a different level,” Helton said. “I’m proud of him, and I look forward to seeing ... how it transfers to Saturday. Because he’s one of those guys that’s having a great camp right now.”

Added Gaoteote: “I think I still got a lot to prove. Just got to go out with the mentality, just keep working hard. That’s what coach preaches.”


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