As we move closer to spring ball, WeAreSC will break down the 15 things we’re most looking forward to watching during those 15 practices that kick off the 2020 season. Next up, we look at linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu.
The potential for linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu this year is one of the most wide-ranging aspects of the entire USC program–as expectations could range anywhere from not seeing the field for the third year in a row, to becoming USC’s best defensive player. It’s an example of just how difficult Tuliaupupu’s high school foot injury has been to recover from, and how talented the 6-foot-3, 230-pound linebacker is.
Tuliaupupu was a huge signing as part of the 2018 recruiting class, but underwent foot surgery at USC, causing him to miss his freshman season. Last spring, it wasn’t a stretch to say he was the most impressive USC linebacker during the few practices in which he participated in. But the Trojans shut him down after just a handful of appearances, as his foot wasn’t quite right.
Eventually, Tuliaupupu underwent yet another surgery on his foot and missed all of last season as well.
At this point, it’s unknown just how many spring ball practices Tuliaupupu will suit up for and be healthy enough to participate in fully. Just seeing him on the field in uniform with his teammates would be a massive step forward.
But if he’s healthy enough to participate at all, expectations for the talented linebacker will likely skyrocket. New defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Todd Orlando has to find answers at that level, as starting middle linebacker John Houston is gone and there doesn’t seem to be a guaranteed answer at any spot returning (there are potential answers, to be sure, and a lot of talent).
But Tuliaupupu is reminiscent of a couple linebackers who found plenty of success in Orlando’s scheme at Texas.
Malik Jefferson, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound thumper found a home in the middle of Orlando’s defense in 2017. After collecting 60 tackles in each of his first two years with the Longhorns, Jefferson piled up 110 stops, including 10 tackles for loss and four sacks during a terrific 2017 season.
Junior college transfer Gary Johnson saw similar success the following year. Consistently sent to attack the line of scrimmage, Johnson went from 57 tackles in 2017 to 90 in 2018, to go with 16.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
With so many of USC’s experienced linebackers seeming to be better fits outside rather than inside, Tuliaupupu’s presence on the field could give the Trojans another veteran answer in the middle, despite how much time he’s missed.
Redshirt senior Jordan Iosefa is back, and a couple young middle linebackers in Ralen Goforth and Maninoa Tufono will get plenty of attention this spring. It will be interesting to see where Orlando sees Palaie Gaoteote in this defense, as the junior has flashed some significant potential, but hasn’t played in more than eight games or recorded more than 58 tackles in either of his first two seasons.
Where Tuliaupupu fits into this defense, what his health situation is, and how much he can contribute over the next 15 practices will be huge questions to be answered during spring ball.