Blessed with God-given athleticism, exceptional work ethic and a confident yet gentle personality, Talanoa Hufanga arrived at Crescent Valley High in the summer of 2014 with lofty expectations.
Hufanga, now among the most sought after prep football players in Oregon high school history, wanted to earn his first scholarship offer by fall’s end. The versatile, two-way freshman was not successful.
Miffed but unshaken, Hufanga went back to work and blossomed into one of the state’s top prospects. The Albany native secured his first offer in March 2016 and has picked up countless more since, ranging across the country from Washington to Michigan to Alabama.
“He’s a pretty special kid and it’s evident by the attention he’s getting,” CV coach Scott Sanders said as the Raiders ready for its Sept. 1 opener at Marist in Eugene.
“But what’s really cool about him is that he’s the same kid he was when he walked out here three years ago as a freshman. He’s very humble about the situation and he’s just a natural-born leader.”
Standing 6-foot-1 at a rock-solid 200 pounds, Hufanga holds scholarship offers from every Pac-12 school except Stanford and Colorado. He is the country’s No. 1-ranked athlete for the class of 2018 by nearly every major recruiting service and is rated a five-star prospect by 247Sports and Scout.
Hufanga, who does not plan to make a verbal commitment until December, will most likely be a safety in college. An opportunity to return kicks and occasionally play offense, much like recent college stars Adoree’ Jackson (USC) and Jabrill Peppers (Michigan), is appealing to the senior.
“His athleticism is really off the charts for a high school kid,” said Corvallis’ Chris McGowan, one of many opposing coaches Hufanga has tormented over the years. Last September, a dismayed McGowan watched as Hufanga accounted for eight total touchdowns in the annual rivalry game.
“Speed, explosiveness, but he seems to have really good instincts as well. There’s a reason he’s being recruited by everyone.”
Added CV teammate Bubba Wa’a, a junior lineman: “It’s all effort with him. He wakes up at 4 a.m. every morning just to train. He gets up and grinds, rises and grinds. It’s crazy how much that guy works.”
Despite the sweeping attention, Hufanga remains mindful of his modest beginnings.
Hufanga’s parents, Tevita and Tanya, help him stay grounded, as does older brother T.J., a former Santiam Christian standout who walked on at Oregon State for two seasons.
“You go from not being wanted at all to having all these options to choose from,” said Talanoa, who estimates he receives about 40 text messages per day from coaches around the country. “My parents do a really good job of never letting it get too big in my head. Sometimes they take my phone away from me and they’ll say ‘you don’t get it for the rest of the night; you get to have family time.’”
Football is often a family affair for the Hufangas.
In the fall of 2011, T.J. — then a junior — helped lead Santiam Christian to a dramatic 31-28 victory over Dayton in the 3A state championship game. Tevita was an assistant under head coach David Lange while Talanoa was the team’s ball boy, an experience he cherishes to this day.
T.J.’s commitment to training left a lasting impression on his younger brother.
“I give him a lot of credit for everything,” Talanoa said. “I’m going to out work you, I don’t want to be out-worked. That’s the first thing he taught me.”
Tevita, who was born in Tonga and moved to the United States after high school, stepped away from coaching when T.J. left for OSU. When the itch returned, he accepted an invitation to join Sanders’ staff last year as a defensive line coach.
“The main reason I stopped coaching was I wanted to be a dad,” said Tevita, a former rugby player. “It was good to have that break and I came over here and got back into it. I really missed coaching.”
While dreaming of the NFL from an early age, the youngest Hufanga began to take football more seriously following his seventh-grade season. He successfully transferred from Santiam Christian to CV, which competes in the larger 5A Mid-Willamette Conference, for high school.
Hufanga said his interest in the Raiders was sparked after watching Tanner Sanders receive a Pac-12 offer from OSU. Sanders signed with the Beavers in 2014 and is currently on the basketball team.
“How does a kid come out of there and get a full-ride scholarship? That’s the same thing I want to do,” Hufanga recalled thinking to himself. “So I kind of put it in the sense of I wanted to follow his path. I talked it over with my family and I think that was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.”
Hufanga impressed immediately, scoring two touchdowns in his third varsity game against CHS. He became the team’s starting quarterback midway through the season, a position he had never played.
After two-plus years of taking the snaps, Hufanga is moving to slot receiver this fall. He will continue to be the roaming safety in the team’s 3-5-3 defense.
“He’s so athletic that we have to have him out there, but the main thing is to get him away from the quarterback spot so he doesn’t take a hit every play,” coach Sanders said. “That’s what’s killed us the last two seasons is having him go down the fifth, sixth game of the year. So our main focus is to keep him healthy.”
A three-year letterman in football, basketball and track, Hufanga will likely be done with prep sports after the fall. He is planning to graduate this winter and head to college for spring football, a growing trend across the nation.
Hufanga released his 10 finalists in June, a list that included Oregon and Oregon State. He is working to set up an official visit with USC and has dates locked in with Nebraska, Michigan and Utah.
January will be a busy month for Hufanga, who has accepted invitations to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl (Jan. 6) and the Polynesian Bowl (Jan. 20). By the end of December, he expects to have taken all five official visits allowed by the NCAA and given a verbal commitment.
“I’m taking this thing slow,” Hufanga said. “I want to make sure I have the perfect fit and try to make sure my heart is in the right direction before I go there.”
Luckily for the coveted prospect, signing day is well into the future.
In the meantime, Hufanga is eager to try and end the Raiders’ two-year postseason drought. His coaches, teammates and family won’t let him lose focus and lapse into complacency.
“The advice I give him is to be the same and be respectful to everybody,” Tevita said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a coach or a parent or a stranger. And once you do that, know there’s always room for improvement… because if you’re stuck on thinking you’re already good, you will miss an opportunity to grow.”