Countdown to College Football Kickoff: Top NFL prospects at Southern Cal

Rob Rang

College football is scheduled to return Saturday, August 29. Each day until then, will be evaluating the rosters of the best teams in college football, including all 64 within the Power Five conferences.

Southern Cal Trojans

Head Coach: Clay Helton (sixth season)

2019 Record: 8-5

2020 NFL Draft Picks: Austin Jackson, OT, Miami Dolphins – 1st Round, No. 18 overall

Michael Pittman, WR, Indianapolis Colts – 2nd Round, No. 34 overall

Overview: The storied past and sky-high expectations at USC may keep Clay Helton’s seat hot but he and his staff deserve a great deal of credit for their work a year ago, especially after incumbent starting quarterback JT Daniels was lost in the second quarter of the season opener.

Coming off of an embarrassing 5-7 campaign which tied for the worst at USC since the late George Bush was in office back in 1991, it would have been easy for the Trojans to fold at that point.

Instead, the Trojans rallied around true freshman signal caller Kedon Slovis, stunning then-No. 10 Utah (the eventual Pac-12 South champs) on their way to finishing the year 7-2 in conference play – the same league record USC had when Helton (and Sam Darnold) helped guide them to a Rose Bowl win back in 2016.

The development of Slovis in Graham Harrell’s up-tempo spread attack was an obvious catalyst to the Trojans’ success. He set a new school and conference record (previously owned by Andrew Luck) by completing 71.9% of his passes last year for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns against just nine interceptions, earning the Pac-12’s Offensive Freshman of the Year, as well as the AP’s Pac-12 Newcomer of the Year.

Of course, star wideout Michael Pittman – arguably USC’s most consistent player on either side of the ball a year ago – played a huge role in helping out the first-year quarterback, whose combined six picks were key in losses at BYU and to Oregon.

Fortunately for Slovis and the USC faithful, the Trojans return two future NFL draft picks in upperclassmen receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown (77 catches for 1,042 yards and six touchdowns) and Tyler Vaughns (74-912-six). As is often the case at Southern Cal, the talent and depth at running back will also have NFL scouts paying close attention.

The top prospects at USC this year, however, may wind up being on the defensive side of the ball, which might surprise some given that the Trojans surrendered 29.4 points per game last year, ranking 78 out of the 130 FBS teams. To put that into perspective, USC finished just ahead of Stanford and Old Dominion in this category last year and those two teams combined for six wins last year (five by the Cardinal).

The disappointing play on the that side of the ball forced Helton to move on from longtime defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and bring in Todd Orlando, who had spent the past three years in this capacity at Texas.

Known his passion and highly aggressive blitzing, Orlando could have the Trojans’ young and extremely talented defense catching up to its prolific offense in 2020.

It will not take long to see how well USC’s defenders take to Orlando’s scheme with hated cross-town rival UCLA and innovative offensive mind Chip Kelly scheduled to kickoff the season September 26.

Featured 2021 NFL Draft Prospect: Jay Tufele, DT, 6-2, 310, 5.0, rJR

Despite missing his senior season at Bingham High in South Jordan, Utah due to a torn ligament in his foot, Tufele was still viewed as one of the top defensive line talents in the country in 2016, turning down the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, Mississippi State and Miami, as well as virtually every Pac-12 program to sign with the Trojans.

It is a testament to the talent already on USC’s roster at that time that Tufele redshirted his first year on campus. He still made a name for himself, however, sharing the team’s Defensive Service Team Player of the Year on a squad that finished the season 11-3 and ranked 12 in the nation in the final AP poll.

Tufele played in all 12 games a year later, earning five starts. Though his statistics weren’t eye-popping (23 tackles, including 4.5 for loss and three sacks), his power at the point of attack and knack for producing big plays served notice that big things were on the horizon. For example, Tufele helped preserve a win over Washington State by blocking a fourth quarter field goal attempt and his 48-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Utah served as one of the few highlights in USC’s disappointing 2018 campaign.

Tufele started all 13 games last year for the Trojans, quickly emerging as one of the more dominant interior defensive linemen in the conference. He jumped up to 41 tackles, including 6.5 for loss with 4.5 of those coming by way of quarterback sacks. Again, these statistics do not truly reflect Tufele’s impact on the game, which is why Pac-12 coaches voted him First Team all-conference and USC named him their Defensive Lineman of the Year for the second consecutive season.

With “just” 18 career starts to his credit, Tufele opted to return to USC for the 2020 season, though it is hard to imagine that he would have had to wait long on draft day had he elected to make the NFL jump.

He enters the 2020 season as a legitimate All-American and Morris Trophy candidate who, barring injury, looks like a future first round pick.

Strengths: Looks the part of a traditional run stuffer with broad shoulders and a thick lower half but Tufele is so much more than the proverbial bull in a china shop power player. He possesses impressive initial quickness as well as above average lateral agility and straight-line speed for his frame and position. Better yet, he’s surprisingly refined given his limited experience at USC, showing an impressive array of pass rush moves. Mixes up his approach, sprinkling in quick swims and push/pull moves, showing the ability to beat opponents with power, athleticism and technique.

Appears to possess disproportionately long arms and certainly has the heavy hands to swat would-be blockers aside, coordinating his upper and lower body beautifully to “get skinny” through gaps. Impressive vision and spatial awareness in traffic to locate the ball.

Terrific grip strength, simply tossing opponents on his way to the ball. Doesn’t stay blocked for long, showing impressive snap-to-snap consistency and effort, including in his pursuit laterally and downfield. Strong and balanced enough to play the keys down the line and latch onto ballcarriers as they attempt to slip by, using his length and power to efficiently drag them to the turf. Appears to be just scratching the surface of his potential.

Weaknesses: More flash than finish at this point, breaking down the door only to let the cat out.

Currently lacks the great closing burst of the best interior rushers. Could do a better job of recognizing cuts and double-teams coming… Listed at 6-3 by USC but appears shorter on tape… Needs to show greater awareness of passing lanes, deflecting just one pass in 24 career games… Missed the 2016 with torn ligaments in his foot, requiring a closer look by team doctors at the Combine.

NFL Player Comparison: Kawann Short, Carolina Panthers – Like the 6-3, 320 pound Short, Tufele is quicker and more agile than his powerful frame suggests, projecting as an early draft pick and future high-end starter.

Current NFL Draft Projection: First Round

The Top 10 NFL Prospects at Southern Cal:

1. Jay Tufele, DT, 6-2, 310, 5.0, rJR

2. Palaie Gaoteote IV, ILB, 6-2, 250, 4.65, JR

3. Tyler Vaughns, WR, 6-1, 185, 4.45, rSR

4. Talanoa Hufanga, S, 6-1, 215, 4.55, JR

5. Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, 6-4, 310, 5.10, rJR

6. Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, 6-1, 195, 4.50, JR

7. Olaijah Griffin, CB, 6-0, 180, 4.35, JR

8. Vavae Malepeai, RB, 5-11, 215, 4.50, rSR

9. Brandon Pili, DT, 6-3, 325, 5.30, SR

10. Stephen Carr, RB, 6-0, 205, 4.50, SR

*All 40-yard dash times are estimates