Which defender will lead USC football in tackles in 2019?

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

USC football has to replace four of the top six tacklers from last year’s squad. Who will step up in 2019 to lead the team in stops?

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Some of the greatest USC football players ever have their names in the Trojan record books as the leading tackler for a season. The likes of Richard Wood, Chris Claiborne, Troy Polamalu and Rey Maualuga achieved that feat from very different positions on the field.

Who will be the next Trojan to put his name on the season-leading tackle chart?

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Here’s a look at the tackle situation for USC’s defense in 2019:

Who led last year?

For the third year in a row, Cameron Smith topped the tackle charts for the Trojans. His 81 total tackles on the year were 14 more than John Houston, who sat second.

Ajene Harris and Marvell Tell rounded out the top three with 57 tackles each.

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The top tacklers for USC in 2018 are worth noting heading into 2019, because all but one of them will not suit up for the Trojans this coming season. Houston is the only returnee.

In fact, four of the top six tacklers will be gone, since Iman Marshall’s sixth-best 48 tackles are also off the board.

Who will factor in this year?

The top returning tackler for the Trojans is Talanoa Hufanga. His place as fifth among tacklers last year is made particularly impressive by the fact that he only featured in eight games and didn’t start until Week 4. He had double-digit sacks in the final two games before his injury.

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Palaie Gaoteote’s output when he was given a full array of playing time was similarly impressive. He started four times at inside linebacker and managed 32 tackles in those contests. He had 38 tackles on the season as a whole.

This year, Gaoteote is slated to start at weakside linebacker, where he will be able to put his aggressive, downhill playing style to good use.

Other players who might contend include middle linebackers like Houston and Jordan Iosefa. Houston has shifted over to the MIKE along with Iosefa, who started at strongside linebacker on the outside in 2018. There Iosefa had 38 tackles.


  • Tackles: Talanoa Hufanga

Houston and Iosefa would normally be strong choices to lead the team in tackles, but the possibility of them splitting time in the middle should prevent either from racking up big numbers statistically.

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Gaoteote would be a perfectly reasonable choice. After all, Smith led USC in tackles in 2016 while operating at the WILL.

Still, the nod goes to Hufanga. There are two reasons for that.

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First, Hufanga was a tackle-machine in the safety spot last year. Playing close to the line of scrimmage, he was able to sniff out plays with his instincts and shut them down with his elite athleticism. Assuming he stays healthy in 2019, it’s safe to bet he will be among USC’s leading tacklers in just about every game.

Second, question marks that surround the Trojan secondary only heighten the likelihood that a defensive back will lead the team in tackles. T.J. McDonald did it in 2012 and 2010. Taylor Mays did it in 2009.

It might be a better indicator for the overall health of USC’s defense as a whole if Gaoteote ultimately takes the lead. The closer to the line of scrimmage a team’s leading tackler it is, the better. In that vein, someone like Christian Rector upping his tackling count to lead the team would be a very positive development.

Either way, Hufanga is the favorite until the secondary is proven not to be a liability. Even then, he could still dominate his way to the top.