Coming into the NFL offseason, the San Francisco 49ers had plenty of question marks about their secondary. General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan acted quickly and re-signed K’Waun Williams, Jason Verrett, Emmanuel Moseley, and Jaquiski Tartt to short-term deals.
The Niners needed to add some depth in the 2021 NFL Draft and selected a couple of players they hope will fill the long-term needs in the secondary. Lynch and co. took Michigan cornerback Ambry Thomas in the third round. They followed that up by picking USC safety Talanoa Hufanga in the fifth round.
Hufanga is an intriguing prospect. He racked up 203 tackles (16.5 for losses), 6.5 sacks, four interceptions, and eight passes defended during his three years with the Trojans. Hufanga was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year last season.
Hufanga is known for his aggressive playing style and will bring versatility to the back end of the Niners’ defense. His penchant for playing with an attacking mindset resulted in two broken collarbones, dislocated shoulder, and a concussion while at USC.
The 22-year-old’s performance caught the eye of Lynch and Shanahan. The 49ers head coach is looking forward to seeing what Hufanga brings to the team in the short and long term.
“Love him at safety, hits like a linebacker,” Shanahan said after picking Hufanga. “His mentality — he’s an old-school badass, as we say. We’re excited to get him here.”
I caught up with Hufanga’s position coach at USC, Craig Naivar, to discuss the prospect’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as the impact his mentor — and Hall of Famer — Troy Polamalu had had on the rookie.
Q: During Talanoa’s time at USC, what is the one area where you saw his game grow the most in getting himself ready for the pro level?
Naivar: I think he’s always been a very instinctive player, but he just kind of needed some validation that he was on the right track. His ability to trigger on everything he sees and be aggressive with it. And I think he kind of flipped that switch this past season. He was a lot more confident, and that led to him making a lot more plays on the football.
Q: Hufanga is known for his aggressiveness. You took over as the safety position coach before last season. How do you think his game matured during the 2020 season that allowed him to be among the 2021 NFL draft selections?
Naivar: I think it was more just playing with more of controlled fury. Being really assignment sound and really accountable. Not that he wasn’t before, but I think just the experience of playing as many years as he has. He just felt really confident. Then by learning another defensive system, sometimes that helps guys with understanding that game. I think hearing a different way of doing things sometimes helps to tie it all together. He played with a more controlled fury, and I think that was where he really evolved.
Q: What is one aspect of Hufanga’s game he needs to develop in order to have a long and successful NFL career?
Naivar: One is staying healthy, and that’s for everybody. And then the other part of that would be improving upon his coverage skills in man coverage. He will need to pick up the speed and precision route-running you see in the pros. I am confident he will do it since he is such a student of the game. Those are the two things I think he will need to focus on in order to make an impact in the NFL.
Q: Hufanga has been working with another former USC standout and Hall of Famer in Troy Polamalu. How much do you think that will help Talanoa as he embarks on his NFL career?
Naivar: I think it’s awesome. I mean just his knowledge, his wisdom, his understanding of what the team needs. What he needs for longevity. I mean, not only was Troy [Polamalu] a tremendous player, but he played for a very extended amount of time.
I don’t remember his testing scores, but one thing I know Troy will be able to help Talanoa with is how to maintain a high level of fitness. I mean, at the end of Troy’s career, he was probably running a 4.70 (40-yard dash) at best, but he played like he ran a 4.40 or 4.50 because he played with tremendous discipline, instinctiveness, and that will rub off on Talanoa. Troy’s wisdom and knowledge are second-to-none, so I am really fired up for what’s to come, based on the time they spend together.
Q: What is Talanoa’s biggest strength that will help him have a successful NFL career?
Naivar: His work ethic. His love of football and his knowledge of football. He’s a really smart football player. I know a lot of times scouts would call me up and say that not only does this guy know his position, his craft, but he can also tell you what all the other 10 guys do on the field.
And that’s kind of bode well for him, the fact that he can be a multitasker, and play a lot of roles, and knowing a lot of the defensive assignments and responsibilities. I think that is his biggest asset to the 49ers for the short term but will keep him in the league for a long time.
Q: How do you think Talanoa will fit in the 49ers’ defensive scheme? It looks like the Niners will run a cover 3 scheme, similar to what Robert Saleh ran last season. Why will Talanoa be successful in this system under new defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans?
Naivar: I think that’s, that’s exactly what the NFL is looking for right now, is a guy that can do all types of things. Talanoa can play safety, you can put him in as a linebacker, and he is just going to make plays. I think having guys like [Fred] Warner around will help Talanoa fit in perfectly with what the 49ers do.
Q: What kind of person is Talanoa off the field?
Naivar: I’ll say this much if my daughter was old enough, and she said she was going to date Talanoa, I would tell her not to screw it up. (laughs) that should tell you how highly I think of this kid.