2021 NFL Draft: USC safety Talanoa Hufanga fits modern hybrid role

PFN draft and Cowboys analyst Dalton Miller previews USC safety Talanoa Hufanga, a linebacker/safety hybrid who thrives against the run.

With the PGA TOUR playing its first major of the displaced season at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, it only made sense to head out to the west coast state for some fun aerial evaluation. Enter USC Trojan’s safety Talanoa Hufanga, the 6’1, 215-pound Polynesian wrecking ball that Dane Brugler recently had going to the Cowboys in his first mock draft after the 2020 Draft concluded.

Hufanga came to the Trojans as a do-it-all athlete from Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis, OR. He played quarterback, wide receiver, and safety in high school and was named a four-star recruit with the “ATH” designation. He scored 18 touchdowns his senior year as a wide receiver, between receptions and carries, and scored 24 his junior year playing quarterback.

Hufanga was a two-sport athlete at Crescent Valley, also playing basketball. His brother, TJ Hufanga, played linebacker at Oregon State, and he has two cousins that are defensive linemen for the USC Trojans. His cousin Marlon Tuipulotu notched six tackles-for-loss in 2019 and will be a junior in 2020.

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Hufanga blends old school mentality and new school versatility

Covering tight ends and running backs 

Hufanga is a unique blend of athleticism for the safety position, and it lends well to covering the more traditionally built tight ends he will see in the league. He consistently displays patience and physicality in the contact window, which can often throw the TE off his stem and force him to try and bend it back, and he doesn’t overextend into contact and whiff, allowing them to simply slide by.

For a safety with his bulk, he’s surprisingly fluid in his lower half, which allows him to stay on the hip of TEs. He did a fine job covering some really good ones from the 2020 draft class, including Cole Kmet of Notre Dame and Colby Parkinson of Stanford.

However, he isn’t the type that will pop off the screen with his straight-line speed. In rundown situations where backs get free, he didn’t seem to close the gap on a back sprinting toward or down the sideline.

During this particular rep, Hufanga is aligned overtop Kmet in the slot on the right side of the offense playing about six yards off the ball with outside leverage. At the top of Kmet’s route, Kmet breaks down, located the hand of Hufanga and jabs outside to sell the route. He creates contact in an attempt to break off and separate, and he actually gets Hufanga a bit overextended, but his flexibility allows him to plant off an adverse position and drive to trail Kmet in coverage.

Ball skills must improve for coverage trust

This is hardly an example of a poor rep, as he simply lost to a 6-foot-forever jump ball guru in Colby Parkinson, but it does highlight an issue he has in his game when his back is to the ball. Hufanga can struggle to locate the football when he’s in man coverage. Even when he’s coming forward, when he keys well and drives downhill on horizontally breaking routes Hufanga struggles to sneak his arm through and dislodge the ball at the catch point.

Related | Analyzing the top safety prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft

He’s also not a single high candidate, because of the aforementioned lack of range he possesses, which will hurt his draft stock. When tasked with playing the back end in two-high situations, Hufanga is best suited to play towards the boundary. This allows him to do two things that help his effectiveness. It keeps him out of situations where he has to cover a lot of ground from the middle of the field to the sideline and also gives Hufanga more opportunities to be part of the run fit in the alley or C gap, which is where his real value lies.

Hufanga is a menace against the run

Right off the bat at the NFL level Hufanga brings a ton of value as a dime linebacker candidate. He already spends more time down near the line of scrimmage than he does on the back end or in the slot, and he isn’t just an alley defender. He makes no qualms coming forward in the scrum between the C gaps to fill a hole. Hufanga has no issues banging around with the big uglies and simply doing his job, even when he won’t get the glory on the stat sheet. And he holds up well physically, too.

But when he’s got the opportunity to fly downhill, he takes it and runs with it. But one thing about how Hufanga does it is what makes it so incredible to see. There wasn’t a time during the four-game sample that he didn’t correctly break down in an open field or semi-open field situation. It’s absolute teach tape. Hufanga flies downhill, breaks down with a god athletic base until he gets the ball carriers final intention, and then he drives back downhill to bring his pads to the opponent instead of passively catching guys.

Hufanga isn’t an automatic tackler in all situations, but if he can keep you inside his immediate circle it’s nearly an inevitability that it ends in the ball carrier hitting the turf. The only issues he had in those situations were against Notre Dame back Tony Jones Jr, who bounced off him once or twice in their contest. The only other slight issue seems to be his finishing rate when he’s forced to sell out on tackles outside his frame. He doesn’t seem to fully have the knack for finding a shoelace to help get someone to the ground.

But when he can scrape along the defensive line, keep outside containment and then wrap and hold up on the goal line you take the lumps from missing out-of-frame tackle attempts.

What is his ceiling, and where could he go in April?

With the lack of top-end juice, it’s tough to imagine that Hufanga will be a guy tasked with playing in the back end play in and play out. He’s a competent cover two safety if he’s placed to the boundary, but he won’t ever be a single high player. Hufanga’s best role will be as a dime linebacker and third safety when teams want to run a heavy nickel personnel against heavier offensive personnel groupings.

That is his best fit. He’s the type of player a team drafts so they don’t have to put their third linebacker on the field who can’t cover a plastic bag, and his ability against the run allows that.

Now, what value does that have come April? Well, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where Hufanga goes in the top 50, and he’s probably closer to 100 than 50, especially with his injury history, but he’s an exciting player for folks that like old school physicality that still works in the modern game. And with Todd Orlando coming in as the new defensive coordinator, it’ll be interesting if we see Hufanga in different situations than 2019.

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