With college coaches and recruiting services breathing down his neck, Talanoa Hufanga managed to keep one secret hidden from the masses.
USC was his dream school.
Following years of sightseeing trips and contemplation, the Crescent Valley High five-star athlete officially signed with the 2017 Pac-12 champions last Wednesday. Hufanga will be moving to Los Angeles in late January to begin the next chapter of his already distinguished football career.
“I kept it on the low that USC has been my dream school since I was young,” Hufanga said Thursday evening while wearing black-framed glasses and his patented smile. “Going through the process made me kind of change my mind on USC because I wanted to make sure I saw everything with a clear view. Then once I thought it was right, USC was the choice.”
Hufanga, the 2017 5A state defensive player of the year, publicly revealed his signing Thursday. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound phenom is slated to play safety for the Trojans and head coach Clay Helton.
“It’s just great to see it come to an end after three long years of recruiting,” CV coach Scott Sanders said. “And for him to go to a storied program like USC and get to go down there and live that Southern California life, I think it’ll be a good time for him.”
One of the highest-rated recruits in Oregon history, Hufanga held offers from 20-plus Division I schools and took official visits to Michigan, Nebraska, UCLA, USC and Utah. Alabama, Notre Dame, Oregon, Oregon State and Washington rounded out his initial top 10.
A late-November visit to USC left a lasting impression on Hufanga.
“It was really the players,” he said. “A lot of the places I went, guys didn’t talk to me. Some players just didn’t want to talk, but USC was one of the places where every guy was like ‘he’s a recruit, this is where I was at so now I’m going to communicate with him and get to know him.’ It blew my mind.”
Hufanga already had a close relationship with freshman defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu, a Central High graduate and distant relative. He also bonded with Brandon Pili, another freshman defensive lineman and Oregon product (Westview High).
USC’s players were open and honest during the official visit, Hufanga said. All aspects of the program and university — good and bad — were open for discussion.
The environment and culture resonated with him.
“You can’t pick a place based on the coaches,” Hufanga said. “If you look at my top six (Michigan, Nebraska, Oregon, UCLA, USC and Utah), three of them had coaching switches.”
Hufanga ignored all social media in the lead-up to signing day as each school presented its closing arguments.
With the help of his family, Hufanga trimmed his list to two — USC and UCLA — about four weeks ago. New Bruins coach Chip Kelly, who went 46-7 in four seasons at Oregon, was unable to pry Hufanga away.
“He cut it down to two because he was starting to get a little stressed out,” Sanders said. “He was a much happier kid for the last three weeks, and once he realized it was going to be USC I think all the weight went off his shoulders.
“But it was still a tough choice at that point because he really enjoyed his time in Westwood. It just became really apparent that he wanted to go and try and walk in Troy Polamalu’s footsteps, and I think he has a really good chance of doing that.”
The Polamalu comparisons are difficult to ignore.
A three-sport star at Winston’s Douglas High, Polamalu went on to become a dynamic safety for the Trojans. He was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the 2003 NFL draft and made eight Pro Bowls during his 12-year career.
Just like Polamalu, Hufanga was an all-state high school basketball player. Hufanga shot nearly 60 percent from the floor in Mid-Willamette Conference play as a junior while averaging around four steals and four assists per game.
“He’s a heart and soul kid,” CV boys basketball coach Mike Stair said of Hufanga, a three-year varsity starter. Hufanga is not playing basketball this winter. “He’s a kid that makes a coach’s job easier in many ways. In addition to being an incredible athlete, he’s a hard worker.
“Talanoa was someone everyone else had to game plan for. If you look at the success we had last year, we are definitely adjusting to not having him … he was a very nice security blanket for us.”
Hufanga was also a three-year standout for CV’s track team, placing sixth in the 200 meters (22.73 seconds) at last May’s 5A state championships.
If basketball had been his primary focus, Stair believes Hufanga would be destined for Division I. Hufanga also profiles as a natural decathlete.
But football is his passion.
“The combination of incredible athleticism and work ethic, it’s not something you see from a 16- or 17-year-old kid,” Stair said. “He created his opportunity and I am excited to see what he does.”
Following winter break, Hufanga has 10 more days of high school before embarking on the next journey. He plans to be fully moved in by Jan. 30 and immediately begin team workouts and classes.
When the Trojans visit Oregon State next November, Reser Stadium will be full of Hufanga supporters eager to watch their hometown hero.
“I’m just so happy for (Talanoa),” Sanders said. “For him to take what he has naturally, his God-given talent, and then throw that into a football factory like USC, I think sky’s the limit.”