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Talanoa Hufanga: From special teamer to a potential starter

The chatter about the USC product’s play has steadily increased this offseason until he officially entered the conversation at starting strong safety spot.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at San Francisco 49ers
Talanoa Hufanga has forced his way into the picture as a starter with an impressive preseason.
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Talanoa Hufanga was destined to be a fan favorite from the moment he was selected in the fifth round. It started with his emotional reaction on the call, informing him of his future as a 49er. Kyle Shanahan described him as “one of our favorite football players in this draft.”

That was immediately followed by Hufanga’s first time addressing the media, allowing his genuinely humble, high-caliber character to shine. But, by far, the most impressive moment was his declaration that he already earmarked special teams Pro-Bowler as his goal for the upcoming season.

A young man so focused on achieving his dream of entering the NFL and dedicated to the idea of doing anything necessary to help his new team prompted an outpouring of excitement and love from the fan base. All this despite the uncertainty surrounding Hufanga’s actual position, the reason behind his draft drop to the 180th pick.

The question about where Hufanga fits on the field revolves around his athleticism, specifically his combination of size and speed. In traditional football, he would seem to fall in a positional no man’s land. However, for the first time in his career, mostly because NFL safeties routinely scorch his posted 4.61 40 time, coaches and talent scouts doubted his ability to be an impact player.

The irony is back in high school, Hufanga, literally, ranked as the number one player at his position in the 2018 recruiting class. The position? Athlete. He was happy to have chosen the slot for himself coming out because it signaled a willingness to play anywhere, as quickly as possible. Colleges responded accordingly.

He was hounded by recruiters. They wanted him as a safety at USC, wide receiver at Oregon State, and, even, a quarterback at the University of Virginia, after only playing there for the first time his freshman year, and sporadically his next three seasons. He eventually landed with the Spirit of Troy to emulate his idol, Troy Polamalu.

As his highlight reel shows, on offense, he took handoffs to the house, ran routes out of the slot for screens or deep balls, blew guys up with devastating blocks, hurdled defenders in the open field with shocking regularity, and found the end zone... A LOT.

His high school coach, who described his role on defense as “monster,” felt, having the option to either drop him into coverage or send him screaming around the edge on a blitz was borderline unfair.

His hits rang out so loudly, they drew close attention from refs, but game tape proved his form flawless. Nevertheless, after the first half, or, sometimes, quarter, if the lead reached an insurmountable deficit, Hufanga would be pulled for the sake of sportsmanship.

Once in college and firmly in place as the starting strong safety, Hufanga’s hits earned him a nickname, “The Trojan Missile,” and two broken collarbones in one year. During his rehab, the coaching staff challenged Hufanga to employ his special set of skills more judiciously.

Meanwhile, he used his time recovering to more closely study film, allowing him to enter a play informed. This resulted in greater trust in his instincts and for him to become even more dangerous.

All this work paid off in his junior year when he led the USC defense in tackles, interceptions, and forced fumbles, earning himself the PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Year Award and First Team All-American honors. However, it wasn’t production or awards that made him a beloved team leader. Instead, teammates point to his work ethic, boundless energy, and relentless support as his most valuable qualities.

Hufanga credits his discipline to growing up on a farm that his father tended to while maintaining a full-time job. Having a strong family anchored by such a role model instilled in him indispensable mental tools. As a kid, he’d wake up early before school and on weekends to handle chores like feeding and cleaning up after the farm’s cows, chickens, pigs, and goats. By comparison, 5:30 AM workouts during his high school years must’ve felt like an all-expenses-paid vacation.

From the farm to Levi’s Stadium, Hufanga hasn’t changed one bit. In the spring, his Mad Max motor impressed as usual, but, as a more physical player, the full scope of his style couldn’t be measured until the pads came out. That’s when heads began to turn, and everyone recognized the possibilities.

But, it wasn’t until Jaquiski Tartt’s recovery from last season’s turf toe injury lingered and some dominant preseason performances that Hufanga’s name got seriously floated as the possible Week 1 starter at strong safety. Then, John Lynch went on the record, saying, “Opportunities in the NFL are earned. That’s what he’s done… he’s vying to start for us.”

That’s high praise from a recently inducted Hall of Fame safety. What about the safety who’d been lining up alongside Hufanga? When asked about the rookie, Jimmie Ward said, “I don’t know what he ran in his 40 time, but on the field, it feels like he runs a 4.3.” That’s what people call game speed.

As training camp wore on, it seemed the veteran Tavon Wilson was the leader in the clubhouse for the spot, but his level of play in the preseason didn’t flash the way Hufanga’s did. Meanwhile, Tartt was just activated off the PUP list after having spent the offseason at the facility rehabbing. He played in Sunday’s game, including a scary moment in which he limped to the sidelines but returned to action shortly thereafter.

The 49ers will most likely slow play Tartt’s return, given his long time away from the action and general cautiousness, but if he’s ready to play, he will get the nod as the team’s most experienced and naturally-gifted option. It’ll be an interesting story to track during practice leading up to the Lions game.

Either way, Hufanga has made the most important first impression a rookie can make. He’s shown that he belongs. He hasn’t looked lost, hasn’t missed assignments, and hasn’t been blown off the field. Instead, he’s relied on his intuition, technique, and competitiveness to get out there and help the team. That’s all he wanted, anyways.

Will he end up starting Week 1? Maybe. Then, maybe, Tartt returns healthy and takes over for the rest of the season. Or, maybe, Hufanga takes the job and never looks back, or he steps in as an injury replacement later in the year. Or, next season, after Tartt’s deal is up, Hufanga inherits the role full time. At this point, it’s hard to see exactly where the future could take him.

No matter what it holds, one thing is clear, Hufanga will be ready for it.