By Carson Marsh
On the defensive side of the ball, returning safety Talanoa Hufanga’s presence cannot go unnoticed. As a true freshman in 2018, Hufanga finished fifth on the team with 51 tackles, despite playing in just eight games due to a season-ending broken collarbone.
“My goal is to just be a leader, always, no matter what, in the game and both on and off the field,” Hufanga said. “I’m just trying to be a guy [whom the younger] guys can look up to. But at the same time I [have to] look up to other guys too, because if we can come together as a team, I know we can do great things.”
Limited to a yellow non-contact jersey this spring, Hufanga’s role has been more mental than physical, learning and adjusting to coach Clancy’s new uptempo style of play.
“We are at a different pace right now,” Hufanga said. “It’s something we weren’t accustomed to last year. You can see all the energy we bring now. We’re excited to be out here and we don’t want [the same result] as last year.”
Unfortunately, Hufanga went to the ground during Saturday’s practice and looked to potentially injure the same collarbone that he broke last fall, though the exact nature and severity of the injury were not able to be confirmed after practice by head coach Clay Helton.
With Hufanga’s leadership in the secondary, the defense will look to rebound after a weak 2018 campaign where they gave up an average of 27 points per game—the most since the 2000 season—and allowed opponents 388 yards per game. The addition of new coaches, specifically defensive backs coach Greg Burns, may be the key to returning Troy to national champion form. Burns, who coached alongside Pete Carroll, helped lead this defense to back to back national championships in the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
“Nobody’s a starter. Nobody’s a backup,” Burns said. “You have an opportunity to come in and compete. [The players] should come in with the mindset that they have to prove they deserve their spot.
In coach Burns’ first tenure with the team (2002-2005), the defense recorded five total shutouts of various opponents. In both coach Helton and coach Pendergast’s tenures with Troy, the defense has yet to record a shutout. Although regaining that dominance may take some time, it begins with the energy exemplified by the players on the practice field.
Asked what attributed to the physicality and energy of last Thursday’s practice, where the defense came away with multiple turnovers against the offense, coach Burns said with a smile on his face, “Nothing, it’s just a regular day.
“Our guys practice with energy. They like to be out here and that’s a sign of a good team. When you like to practice and like playing and working with the guys you’re competing with, it becomes [something special].”
This renewed energy could be attributed to the simplified and faster styles of play on both sides of the ball. As the offense moves to a refreshed up-tempo scheme, the defense has had to adjust.
“It’s awesome,” Hufanga said of lining up against this new-look offense. “You get a lot of reps. For us, this new [defensive] scheme allows us to play fast and free.”
Coach Burns takes over a unit that has some pieces to work with, in Hufanga and fellow safeties Isaiah Pola-Mao and CJ Pollard, as well as cornerbacks Olaijah Griffin, Isaac Taylor-Stuart and Greg Johnson.
While Hufanga still faces a battle to fully recover from his shoulder injury, that hasn’t stopped him from seeking out advice from coach Burns after practice.
“He’s been helping me with my technique and teaching me different ways to simplify my play,” Hufanga said. “He has a certain passion for the game that’s inspiring [to me].”
Although the timetable on Hufanga’s return is uncertain, it will be interesting to see how coach Burns utilizes this energetic and passionate talent to return this defense to USC form. Led by Hufanga, the mindset is there.
“Were playing nasty this year,” Hufanga said.