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For all of his successes, USC safety Talanoa Hufanga has done a good job of staying humble and staying true to himself.
A versatile defender who can stop the run and drop back in coverage efficiently in the secondary, Hufanga is coming off of an incredible 2020 campaign that has seen him shoot up draft boards in recent months. Still, throughout his pre-draft process, he has been able to maintain a level-headed mindset and is grateful to be in the position he is today.
Hufanga recently sat down exclusively with The Draft Wire and talked about his 2020 season, working with Troy Polamalu, how his offensive background in high school helps him read offenses, and much more.
JI: You’ve been training with Troy Polamalu leading up to the draft. How has it been, being able to learn under one of the best safeties to play the game?
TH: It’s been an incredible experience, to say the least. I’ve been fortunate enough in the spot that I am to pick somebody’s brain, to learn from someone I can call a friend, and someone who’s teaching me a little bit more about life than just football. I’m great for the opportunity; I just want to be a sponge and absorb everything that’s coming out of his mouth.
JI: How did that opportunity come about?
TH: I was fortunate enough to be in contact with him coming out of high school, getting to know Troy and getting to know his family a little bit through our phone in this day and age, being able to FaceTime him and stuff like that. I was more or less just trying to learn from him in any way possible, but when I asked if I was able to train with him, he took it as an awesome opportunity for me to grow and learn. He’s been a mentor for me since high school, and I appreciate everything that he’s done for me. It presented itself like that.
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JI: You’re an incredibly versatile defender, and you were used in a lot of different alignments. If you had to choose, would you say you’re most comfortable in two-high shells, a center-fielder role, or near the box?
TH: Honestly, I think I’m a player that likes to be versatile like you said, so I think about me as not having a favorite. I think you’ve got to be so play all the positions, whether that be special teams, whether it’s being on the sideline encouraging your team. Being that type of player that can play the post, play the box, play man coverage on tight ends, match up with running backs, slots, No. 1 receivers, when you can try and make yourself as versatile as possible like that, I think your opportunities are endless.
JI: You were pretty versatile in high school, too. You were also a quarterback, and played multiple other sports. How has that background helped you at the safety position?
TH: It definitely has. To be quite frank, being a quarterback in high school, you learn a lot about throwing lanes, and when you run the ball, you learn how to attack a defender and what they’re really looking for offensively. You try to take that mindset and flip it, be a defender and see what they’re trying to do, how can you make them think the opposite when you’re trying to attack them. It’s really unique and unfolds itself, but being a true, two-way player in high school, it really helped make that transition to defense fully in college a much better transition.
JI: I’d figure playing quarterback gives you more insight in how quarterbacks go through progressions and how to scan the field, right?
TH: No doubt. I think a lot of it has to do with timing, as well. A quarterback has a clock in his head of, “What are the things that go on throughout the progressions and the reads?”, but we kind of have that inner clock and timing as a safety – or as a linebacker, anything – it can help you adjust to what kind of play we’re looking at and how things will unfold on the field. When you can use that to your advantage, you try to make the most of those opportunities and help the team in any way to win.
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JI: You have had some run-ins with injuries over the course of your career. Have teams expressed any concern about that to you, and how have you put that aside and put more of an emphasis on your tape?
TH: I think that injuries are a part of the game. Today’s football, the injury rate is 100 percent. There’s no guarantee that you’re going to be fine playing the game. For me, it’s just having a great time while I’m on the field, being present. I love the game, and for me, there’s nothing really to overcome because you can get injured in any way, shape or form, off the field, as well. For me, it’s just live in that moment, being happy with what’s going on, whether I’m on the field or off the field. I’m grateful to be breathing, at the end of the day.
A lot of coaches have expressed the player I am and the person I am more than anything that happened on the field. I really like to continue to be the best person I can be, because a lot of what happens in football is what happens. You can’t really control those things.
JI: How has your pre-draft process been in terms of meeting with teams? With the virtual visits this year, I’m just curious as to how often you’re having those this time of year.
TH: You know me, I just like to stick to myself. Like I said, I’m training with Troy, so it’s very busy with just him. Not too many meetings, but just getting a hold of whatever team needs me and to be available to do my best. It’s not a huge mob, but that’s not really a worry for me. I’m just trying to be the best person I can be and see how things unfold. I’m just grateful and give all the glory to God for the position that I’m in right now.
JI: You had a ton of accolades in 2020: Consensus All-American, first-team All-Pac-12, Polynesian College Football Player of the Year. What have those awards meant to you?
TH: I think a lot of it, first and foremost, is all glory to God, because without Him, I wouldn’t be in this position. I’ve had a great coaching staff at USC, great teammates and a great supporting staff, as well, just allowing me to be the best person and the best player I can be on the field, as well. It goes a testament to my teammates, just helping me be where I can and being where I am, doing my job on the field. When everybody does their job, a lot of success comes our way in general. As a team, I’m grateful to have all these people and different brothers, I will can them, a part of my life. Being able to play the game at such a high level and have those accolades is a testament to my teammates.
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JI: Being as versatile as you are, you must’ve gone up against a lot of great players in a lot of different alignments. Who’s the toughest player you’ve had to go up against?
TH: If I’m being honest, I go up against a lot of tough players over the course of my practices, so going up against a guy like Amon-Ra [St. Brown] or a guy like Michael Pittman, those are guys that are great at what they do. Playing against them in practice is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, and it made the games a little bit easier. Going up against those guys truly was what made the games a little bit easier. Going up against them made me who I am and how I play the game because you don’t leave a lot of room for mistakes when you go against guys like that.
JI: Plus, you’ve had to go against talented quarterbacks in practice like Kedon Slovis and J.T. Daniels, so that must’ve been an “iron-sharpens-iron” situation.
TH: Oh, no doubt, and that’s what we call our periods in practice at the end, when you get to the later periods of practice. “Iron sharpens iron” is ones vs. ones, and you get that competition going, and going against quarterbacks like that just helps the game that much better. It helps you elevate your game to the highest level.
JI: How do you like to spend your time outside of football, and what kind of person should teams be expecting when they draft you?
TH: I am who I am. I’m a guy who’s very authentic to himself, a guy who has a lot of values and morals that go deep within my faith. I’m just a person that can help change a community in a brighter sense. I’m very kept to myself as much as I try to be. I’m vocal; I try to be myself and be authentic. So moving forward, any team that takes interest in me, I’m just grateful for that.