Talanoa Hufanga has become USC’s everywhere man on defense

Washington State's Abraham Lucas and Josh Watson block USC's Talanoa Hufanga.
Washington State’s Abraham Lucas (72) and Josh Watson block USC’s Talanoa Hufanga during the second half on Sunday at the Coliseum.
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

Talanoa Hufanga crept up to the line of scrimmage on Sunday, each step a bit further outside of his comfort zone.

Before his latest turn, it had been years since the USC safety moonlighted at linebacker, patrolling the box for Crescent Valley High in Oregon. He was a force at the position then, so instinctive that coaches would ask him simply to line up over the ball and roam without boundaries, making plays however he saw fit.

Todd Orlando could sense those instincts before he’d even met his star defender. Hufanga had the anticipation of a defensive back, coupled with the physicality of a run-stuffing, middle linebacker. Over two seasons at USC, he’d proven himself as the positionless puzzle piece every modern defense now demanded, capable of filling in wherever he might be needed.


Those instincts, the Trojans’ defensive coordinator knew, couldn’t be taught.

So Orlando decided to test those boundaries by expanding Hufanga’s. He drew up a package with Hufanga as a dime linebacker and filed it away, knowing at some point USC might need his help elsewhere.

That moment came last week, with a four-wide spread offense on tap and a linebacker room spread perilously thin. Three USC inside linebackers were already out for the season, and both usual starters were set to miss the game against Washington State. So Orlando turned to Hufanga, tasking him with learning an entirely new position in a week.

A season that could have led to Clay Helton’s undoing instead might give him a stronger hold on his job as USC coach.

Dec. 7, 2020

“They just came to me and were like, you gotta be flexible, you gotta be versatile,” Hufanga said. “There wasn’t any question about it. Put me in the box, and I’m going to do it.”

Even before the position change, Orlando’s defense had already pushed Hufanga outside of his comfort zone. For all the tone-setting plays he made over the last two seasons, the soft-spoken junior largely preferred to lead by example. That has changed in USC’s new defense, which Hufanga says has challenged him to be more vocal.

His performance this season has certainly spoken volumes. Hufanga has 10 more tackles than any other USC defender (33). His three interceptions lead the Pac-12, after he went two seasons without one. He even added a sack Sunday, flashing his prowess as an edge rusher.

“He’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach and he’s so football instinctive,” coach Clay Helton said Sunday. “We asked him to do so much. He plays in the post, he plays in the box, he can play man. When he pressures he can be a real detriment and a good matchup on a running back, to beat him in protection. He’s such a great playmaker.”

USC safety Talanoa Hufanga pulls down Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura.
USC safety Talanoa Hufanga, left, pulls down Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura for a sack during on Sunday at the Coliseum.
(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

A brief move to linebacker last week only made that impact more evident. Even before he tallied nine tackles, a sack and an interception against the Cougars, teammates were jokingly clamoring for Hufanga to move to nose tackle next.

He draws the line there.

“I’ll leave that to my cousin,” Hufanga said, with a laugh, referring to defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu, who’s having his own standout season in the middle of USC’s defense.

But as Hufanga stood at the line of scrimmage late in the first quarter Sunday, he stretched the boundaries of reasonable expectation even further. As the ball was snapped, Hufanga faked a rush, all the while watching the eyes of quarterback Jayden de Laura.

Behind four touchdown catches by wide receiver Amon-ra St. Brown, USC starts fast and never looks back in a 38-13 victory over Washington State.

Dec. 6, 2020

When de Laura winded up to throw, Hufanga stepped back into coverage, tipping the ball at the line. The ball fluttered into his outstretched arms, and the safety-turned-linebacker took off like he was a running back, hurdling clean over de Laura’s head on his way to a 37-yard return.

“Oh my goodness,” Helton recalled thinking to himself, “we’ve taken it to another level now.”


On the sideline, Hufanga approached USC’s coach. “That’s why I’m here,” he told Helton.

“I want to be able to help this team make big plays, and I want to be able to help win a championship.”

At whatever position that may require.