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Tuli Tuipulotu finds his own way to be the leader of USC’s defense

USC defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu rushes Fresno State.
USC defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu pursues a play against Fresno State on Sept. 17 at the Coliseum.
(John McCoy / Associated Press)
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He has heard the word many times over many months and tried as hard as he might to live up to its weighty label, but eight games into a standout junior season, Tuli Tuipulotu still isn’t entirely comfortable acknowledging it out loud.

“I don’t think I’m a leader,” USC’s star defensive end declared this week.

His coaches and teammates wholeheartedly disagree. The stats tell a similar story, as his seven sacks through the Trojans’ first six games led all of college football at the time. Tuipulotu’s tear has slowed somewhat since with offenses setting out specifically to stop him. But as USC enters the stretch run of its first season under Lincoln Riley, with California awaiting Saturday, there’s a convincing case to be made that no Pac-12 defensive lineman has been more disruptive than the 6-foot-4, 290-pound Tuipulotu.

Still, since the spring, when USC’s new staff first identified him as an ideal leader for its revamped defense, Tuipulotu has remained reluctant to view himself in the same light. He said it’s because he can’t possibly put himself above any of his teammates.

“I just like to feel like we’re all the same,” Tuipulotu said, “like we all can be that guy.”

His trepidation traces back long before Riley’s staff took over at USC, to his days at Lawndale High, where Tuipulotu first transferred ahead of his sophomore year. He was 180 pounds, but it was clear almost immediately that the skinny sack artist would be a difference-maker, Lawndale coach Travis Clark said.

Clark identified many of the same leadership traits then that the coaches see now at USC, starting with his relentless work ethic. He also felt the same hesitance to lead from Tuipulotu, who was not exactly outspoken, by nature.

“I used to try to egg him along and tell him he needed to be a leader,” Clark said. “He has all of those qualities, however, he’s always been uncomfortable with the label. But he’s such a leader just naturally.”

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He often led by example, Clark said, without knowing it. The Lawndale coach can’t recall him missing a single snap or practice in his three seasons as a defensive end and tight end. He does remember one such moment in vivid detail when Tuipulotu hurt his shoulder after forcing a stellar sack-fumble against Chatsworth Sierra Canyon during the state playoffs.

Clark worried he was going to lose Tuipulotu, who was wincing as he ran to the sideline.

“He saw it on my face,” Clark said. “And he was like, ‘Coach, I’ll be back.’ He’s holding his shoulder. He’d just come off the field. He’d made this incredible play, and you could tell it was killing him. He’s like, ‘Coach, I’ll be back.’ He was back the next series.”

The next season, Clark sat Tuipulotu down and explained to him how vital it was for him to step up as a senior leader. Tuipulotu tried his best to fulfill his coach’s request — even as it pushed him outside of his comfort zone.

“Tuli is a pleaser,” Clark said. “He knew that was the coach’s order, so he wanted to make sure he fulfilled it.”

The same would be true three years later, when Shaun Nua took over as USC’s defensive line coach. Nua knew from past experience that being a successful position coach required empowering strong leaders at the position. Like Clark, he zeroed in quickly on Tuipulotu.

“It took me a couple practices to realize that I can push this guy as hard as I can, and he won’t budge,” Nua said.

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At Michigan, Nua had just helped develop Aidan Hutchinson into a team captain, Heisman Trophy finalist and the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Now he turned his attention to Tuipulotu, whose disposition was entirely different from his previous pupil.

Arizona running back DJ Williams runs away from USC defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu.
Arizona running back DJ Williams runs away from USC defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu in the second half on Saturday in Tucson.
(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

Tuipulotu’s reluctance to speak up didn’t bother Nua one bit, the USC assistant said.

“I don’t care if you talk,” he recalled telling Tuipulotu. “I don’t care if you’re vocal. But you always have to be the guy being early, the guy who wears the right stuff and does all the right things, who knows all the positions, who knows the whole playbook.”

To push him as a leader, Nua put Tuipulotu in positions to lead by example. At practice, whenever other defensive linemen made mistakes, Nua made sure it was Tuipulotu who incurred his wrath.

“If I’m going to yell at someone, I’m going to yell at Tuli,” Nua said. “If Brandon Pili is late, I’m going to say, ‘Where are you at, Tuli? You didn’t wake him up?’ If our guys are doing the wrong thing on the field, it’s like, ‘Tuli, you’re supposed to be the leader.’ Everything goes through him.”

That part of the job has been no problem for Tuipulotu, who has dutifully done everything for USC’s defense short of lining up at deep safety. Last week, in a win over Arizona, that even meant briefly moonlighting as an inside linebacker.

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Both Riley and Nua said that they’ve seen Tuipulotu embrace his role as a leader with the same willingness this season — even if he’s reluctant to say so.

“There’s times when we gotta get out in front, and he’s done it, he’s talked to the team on a number of occasions, which I don’t know if he would have done before,” Riley said. “He’s not our rah-rah guy, he’s not a guy you’re going to hear every day, but he’s had some really strong impactful moments with this team. I’ve seen him more vocal around his teammates, whether it’s encouraging them or challenging them or anything in between. And so I’ve been impressed with him because he’s had to get out of his comfort zone a little bit.”

Tuipulotu may still have his doubts. But his teammates, like USC’s coaches, have been watching all along. And they have no doubt about whether he fits the bill.

“He’s everything you want in a leader,” safety Bryson Shaw said. “And he’s a hell of a player.”

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