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USC is looking for hunters as they gather talent on defensive line

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Southern California defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu (49) sacks Utah quarterback Jake Bentley (8) in the second half during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

USC defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu sacks Utah’s Jake Bentley on Nov. 21, 2020 in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Vic So’oto has spent a lot of time this spring talking about culture. So much, it seems, his defensive linemen can recite his credo on command.

“Tuli,” the USC assistant said, addressing the young defensive lineman who joined him during a Thursday morning videoconference. “What’s your job on the defensive line?”

Tuli Tuipulotu didn’t blink.

“To establish the violent, physical nature of football through relentless effort, both immovable and unstoppable, we do not chase, we hunt,” the sophomore recited on cue, as if the answer had been hard-wired into his brain.

That’s the kind of programming So’oto had hoped to get started this time last year, before the pandemic derailed plans.

His first season at the helm of USC’s defensive line still yielded some impressive dividends. Among them was Tuli Tuipulotu, who burst onto the scene in his first season with 22 tackles, and his brother, Marlon, who established himself as an All-Pac-12 defensive tackle before declaring for the NFL draft. Defensive end Nick Figueroa also emerged as one of the Trojans’ top pass rushers, leading the team in sacks (3.5).

But So’oto says he wasn’t able to go deep into the culture he had hoped to cultivate over the Trojans’ shortened season. So he’s diving in head first this spring, with playing time up for grabs across USC’s defensive line.

“We’re seeing who can be versatile and who can go out and get a job,” So’oto said. “A lot of guys are all over the place. A lot of guys are doing things they haven’t done in the past. It’s all by design, to see who can do what.”

In five spring practices, that has meant dropping 300-pound redshirt freshman Jamar Sekona into coverage, or challenging Tuli Tuipulotu to step up as a leader after just three starts as a freshman. So far, both have impressed outside of their comfort zones.

“I’m looking for guys that are hungry,” So’oto said.

He’ll be tasked with replacing two of the Trojans’ top interior linemen, after Marlon Tuipulotu and Jay Tufele declared for the draft. Redshirt senior defensive tackle Brandon Pili, who missed multiple games last season, would seem to be the obvious choice in the middle. But So’oto said he’s had to work on igniting Pili’s passion. And “now,” he said, “I gotta teach him technique.”

“He’s the one that you look at the roster and say, ‘This guy should be it,’ ” So’oto said of Pili. “With him, it’s showing that he can do it day in and day out and fighting off guys who really want to play.”

USC defensive lineman Brandon Pili in the second half.USC defensive lineman Brandon Pili in the second half.

USC defensive lineman Brandon Pili against Colorado on Oct. 25, 2019 in Boulder, Colo. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Sekona has emerged as one of those guys through the early going of spring, earning praise from head coach Clay Helton and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.

“He came in in shape, and he was killing all the winter workouts and put himself in a great position to get a lot of opportunities,” So’oto said. “Now, what his role will be in the fall is still up in the air and it’s still something that’s being worked on daily. But he positioned himself in the best way.”

No one has positioned themselves better than Tuipulotu, who seems locked into an integral role along USC’s defensive front. Figueroa also should play a major part in the fall but will miss the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery.

So’oto won’t have the chance to see the full potential of USC’s edge rushers this spring. Drake Jackson missed the start of spring, before returning Tuesday, and top prospect Korey Foreman won’t join the team for a few more months.

That time away is “a big deal,” So’oto said Thursday, especially as the group works to establish a new culture up front.

“But it’s nothing we can’t overcome,” he continued. “My job is to get [Foreman] caught up. And I’m pretty damn good at that. So we’ll be ready to go in fall camp.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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