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Nick Figueroa believed in himself and USC has been the beneficiary

USC's Nick Figueroa sacks Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura.
USC’s Nick Figueroa sacks Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura during the first half on Sunday at the Coliseum.
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

When he left Cal Poly after the 2017 football season, Nick Figueroa understood the risks. He was leaving behind a scholarship, forgoing a guarantee. At Riverside City College, Figueroa had no idea what his future might hold. All he knew was, deep down, he felt destined for more.

He couldn’t have imagined how well his gamble would pay off three years later, after a winding path led him to USC.

By that point, Figueroa had barely even played the sport. He wasn’t a late bloomer, so much as he was late to the process altogether — too preoccupied with playing baseball year-round to bother much with football. It wasn’t until his senior year at San Bernardino Cajon High that coaches convinced him to join the team as a 6-foot-5, 255-pound defensive end.

He tallied 12 sacks in that debut season, just in time to earn the attention of a few smaller schools, among them Cal Poly.

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The marriage with the Mustangs ultimately wasn’t meant to be. As Cal Poly endured a 1-10 season, Figueroa redshirted, contributing only on the scout team defense.

While he sat, he couldn’t shake his longing for more. So on a whim that December, he sent an email to James Kuk, the defensive and recruiting coordinator at Riverside City College, who showed interest in him as a senior at Cajon.

The athletic directors at USC and UCLA worked together to help salvage a football season for the Pac-12. Their teams meet Saturday.

Kuk was thrilled. In Figueroa, he saw a player whose opportunity didn’t come close to matching his potential. His tape was limited, his production inconsistent, but “his raw athleticism, his natural instincts, his drive, his desire — all of those things suggested he was the ideal prospect,” Kuk said.

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But to leave meant betting big on that promise. As Figueroa mulled the decision over Christmas break, feelings of self-doubt inevitably crept in.

“It was such an important, irreversible decision,” he said. “A lot of it had to do with coming out of high school, I had a few teammates that went to major Division I programs. I saw how they worked and practiced and saw the kind of people they were. I saw I had a shot to compete at that level.”

So he moved back home to San Bernardino and commuted to Riverside that fall. For nine months, he focused solely on football, lifting constantly, working harder than ever before. It didn’t take long to realize his risk would pay dividends.

The full return still wouldn’t be clear until this fall, when, as a redshirt junior, Figueroa has come to lead USC in sacks with 3.5 through four games, emerging as an indispensable member of a resurgent defensive front. But at Riverside City College, as his confidence began to build, the results quickly began to show.

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“By Week 7,” Kuk said, “I can honestly say he was dominating opponents. Any of those doubts about him leaving without a scholarship, those were no longer an issue. He was playing free.”

USC defensive lineman Nick Figueroa celebrates a sack with defensive lineman Kobe Pepe.
USC defensive lineman Nick Figueroa, right, celebrates a sack with defensive lineman Kobe Pepe against Washington State during the first half on Sunday at the Coliseum.
(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

UCLA was among the first to notice, offering him in early October, before his 11-sack season was even complete. It took another two months for USC to follow suit, setting up another stressful choice on his football future.

Tennessee had also offered. But the decision between crosstown rivals came down to the wire.

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“It literally went until we’d scheduled a Signing Day event at the school,” Kuk said. “It was at 11 a.m., and he and I were on the phone while he was driving with his parents to the school. Literally still he was contemplating what school he should commit to.”

That last-minute decision would set the table two years later for a breakout season with the Trojans, whose revamped defense under coordinator Todd Orlando has been an ideal fit for Figueroa.

“It’s no surprise to me that he’s thriving in this package,” Orlando said, “but that’s the person. He’s got talent — a lot of people have talent but it’s the internal talent that to me measures a person, how much success they’re going to have, and he has that in bunches.”

Defensive line coach Vic So’oto called Figueroa “the most sure player we have in our group.” Both coaches pointed to his relentless work ethic as a primary reason for his sudden success.

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“I could tell him to go out there and play any position, and he’d get it done,” So’oto said.

The junior safety is counted on to do so much for the Trojans and against Washington State he even played at linebacker.

No Pac-12 team has had a better pass rush this season than the Bruins, who have 18 sacks in five games — a clip that ranks eighth nationally — entering the game with the Trojans on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. USC has 12 sacks in four games.

That’s largely due to Figueroa and a difficult decision that, three years later, has proven well worth the risk.

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Etc.

After three linemen were left in quarantine last week, USC is expecting to return all of its players this week, coach Clay Helton said. … Offensive guard Liam Jimmons practiced the last two days and is expected to play Saturday after suffering a subluxation of his elbow last week. … Linebacker Ralen Goforth is also expected to return after missing the previous game with a mid-foot sprain.


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