Everything fell into place this past season for Marlon Tuipulotu.
The USC defensive lineman took advantage of the extra training time due to the coronavirus pandemic. Defensive line coach Vic So’oto came to USC in February 2020, and Marlon made sure to soak up all the knowledge he could. Defensive lineman Jay Tufele opted out of the 2020 season, making Marlon the Trojans’ top option up front. Marlon also had the opportunity to play with his brother Tuli, who became a starter on the line as only a freshman.
But rather than these external factors, it was mainly Marlon’s internal motivation that led to his breakout season and ascent up NFL draft boards.
“His whole mindset changed last season,” Tuli said. “He became a different dawg, and he wanted to show out and do his thing.”
Through six games in 2020, Marlon had 23 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble as the Trojans’ starting nose tackle. He posted solid numbers during his previous two years as a starter, but in 2020, the recognition began to follow. Marlon was selected to the All-Pac-12 First Team for the first time and earned an invitation to the Reese’s Senior Bowl.
“I became a smarter football player,” Marlon said. “I began to hone in on little things that opposing teams do and also just focused on my game and finding ways for my game to get better. Once I figured those things out, I felt like it came easier to me than previous seasons.”
Marlon achieved two major goals this past year. He has dreamt of playing in the NFL throughout his football career. But perhaps just as important to Marlon was the opportunity to play football alongside his brother Tuli and his cousin, safety Talanoa Hufanga.
Since Tuli was on the high school freshman team while Marlon was on varsity, the brothers didn’t have the opportunity to formally play together before Tuli came to USC. Marlon competed against Hufanga in high school, but the three of them hoped they’d line up on the same defense someday.
That wasn’t a guarantee, as Tuli came in as a true freshman and had to fight his way into the starting lineup. Marlon remembers celebrating with Tuli after he recorded his first sack during the Trojans’ third game of the season against Utah.
“It was so fun,” Marlon said of the opportunity to play with his brother. “Luckily he was able to take advantage of his opportunity, and [Tuli, Hufanga and I] got to play a lot together. That’s something I’m going to for sure remember for the rest of my life.”
For Tuli, the Tuipulotu name has always come with expectations because of his older brother’s success. In coming to the same school, it was important to him to create his own identity through his play.
“Ever since high school, I was expected to be Marlon or be better than him,” Tuli said. “I’m just trying to produce for my team, trying to make a name for myself. [Marlon] always tells me, ‘Don’t listen to everyone else.’ He tells me to just be myself and do what I do.”
There are also perks to having an older brother who is the first to experience milestones like playing college football and, now, entering the NFL Draft. Tuli said Marlon has taught him to be more coachable and to hustle to the ball. If Tuli enters the draft, he will know what to expect after watching his brother go through the process.
For the Tuipulotu brothers, the goal of playing in the NFL is about more than just the game itself; it’s a vehicle toward a more comfortable life for their family.
“Our end goal is to provide for our family, to make everything easier for them,” Tuli said. “That’s what football is to us: an opportunity to set up our family for life.”
Marlon will likely hear his name called this Friday or Saturday at the 2021 NFL Draft, as analysts are conflicted on whether he is a Day 2 or Day 3 pick. Annenberg Media analyst Reagan Griffin Jr. predicted that Marlon will be a fourth-round selection.
“I’m really excited for him,” Tuli said. “Our family is happy for him and we all just wish for him to get the opportunity to show out because we know he can ball out.”
The brothers probably won’t communicate as much when they’re immersed in their respective teams this next football season, Tuli admitted. He says he would have loved to play another season alongside Marlon and Hufanga.
But if everything continues to fall into place for the Tuipulotus, the 2020 season might not have been the last time they step onto the same field.