Marlon Tuipulotu looking explosive in USC football Spring Camp

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu is giving the Trojans hope of a turnaround in the trenches, down 10 pounds and making plays during USC football Spring Camp.

Value in Versatility. PRACTICE NOTES

Marlon Tuipulotu may be USC’s most unassuming defensive lineman.

He matched Christian Rector for sacks in 2018, without the accolades coming off the edge. Jay Tufele certainly flashed in bigger ways, like a memorable scoop-and-score against Utah.

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Still, hopes were no less high for Tuipulotu when he signed with USC back in 2017, a four-star defensive tackle with the strength of an accomplished high school wrestler and the polish to contribute right away.

He even earned a starting job as a true freshman, but his first season was cut short by a back injury which required surgery. The 2018 season saw Tuipulotu ease back into action, eventually reclaiming a starting job in Week 3.

Of course, back injuries are notoriously tricky to return from and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his most productive games were in the final month of the campaign. After totaling zero sacks in the opening six games, Tuipulotu had 4.5 in the final six contests. Two of those came in the season finale against Notre Dame. He had 5.5 tackles for loss in all.

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Tuipulotu produced in 2018 while working at 320 pounds, but he’s now down to 310 thanks to new defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a’s preference for quickness over size.

“Marlon’s exactly where he needs to be, but I think Marlon’s realizing, boy I’m playing really well with this weight,” Kauha’aha’a said.

Both Kauha’aha’a and Tuipulotu aren’t worried about strength when it comes to losing the weight. Kauha’aha’a noted that USC’s defensive linemen are plenty strong to begin with. What he needs is them to be able to move.

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“It feels a lot better,” Tuipulotu said. “It feels like I can actually move and get my assignment done. It feels great to be a little lighter.”

Tuipulotu certainly looks explosive on the practice field, using his quickness and athleticism to burst into the backfield with regularity. He had two tackles for loss during practice on Thursday, Day 8 of Spring Camp. That’s a week after he had a breakout performance in USC’s first live tackling day in full pads. The added physicality of the Trojans’ practices has suited the redshirt sophomore.

There is always more work to be done of course.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and Kauha’aha’a have both sited the importance of improving stance and footwork in the trenches.

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“Footwork is a big part of our defense, so we’ve got to get good at that,” Tuipulotu said.

Kauha’aha’a has a slightly different technique compared to former defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze. Learning that and attacking the little things with a “better mindset” and a “better work ethic” are at the forefront for Tuipulotu and his teammates on the defensive line.

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“Our D-line, we want to come out and dominate and compete everyday,” Tuipulotu said. “We want to hold ourselves to a higher standard than we did last season, because we felt like we didn’t do what we were supposed to do last season.”

USC ranked ninth in the Pac-12 in rushing defense and had 17 fewer sacks in 2018 than they did the season before. There is definite improvement to be made. But there’s also valid hope of the likes of Tuipulotu and company coming through.

It’s easy to forget that USC had just one senior on last year’s defensive line. Six players started games up front for the Trojans, four of them were second-year players, including three redshirt freshmen.

With 10 starts under his belt and another offseason of work ahead of him, Tuipulotu is one to keep an eye on in 2019.