At the conclusion of the 2021 NFL Draft on Saturday, seven former USC Trojans can now call themselves professional football players.
USC’s most highly touted prospect, guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, was the first Trojan off the board and the team’s only first-round pick Thursday night in Cleveland. The New York Jets, in a mid-draft trade with the Minnesota Vikings, moved from the 23rd pick to the 14th pick to take the offensive lineman.
The 6-foot-4, 315-pound prospect was the Trojans’ rock in pass protection in the 2020 season after moving to starting left tackle for the first time in his collegiate career. There, he played 466 snaps in six games and only allowed four sacks the entire year. He also received numerous accolades his final year, being named to the Pac-12 First Team and winning the Morris Trophy, given to the top lineman in the Pac-12.
The Jets have a young football team, and after bringing in former BYU quarterback and No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson to be their signal-caller heading into 2021, it will be a strong priority to keep him upright. Vera-Tucker will compete in training camp for either the left guard position or the right tackle spot, but he will be expected to start Week 1 somewhere on the front five. Analysts and experts believe Vera-Tucker projects long-term as a guard, his natural position, where he is likely to play on the same side as second-year left tackle Mekhi Becton, who had an excellent rookie year.
The Jets hope Vera-Tucker can be a foundational piece on the offensive line similar to the unit the team put out a decade ago that led them to two AFC Championship Game appearances. They’ll look to develop him into such a cornerstone player as soon as possible.
While no USC players were drafted on Day 2 of the draft, defensive tackle Jay Tufele was the first player to hear his name called on Saturday, taken with the first pick in the fourth round, 106th overall, by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Tufele was a bit of a wild card this draft as one of many players to opt out of his final college season. He did have a strong 2019 campaign, however, recording 41 total tackles and 4.5 sacks for the Trojans.
Defensive tackle was a major area of need for the Jags heading into the draft, as the unit only recorded 2.5 sacks, and the defense overall ranked 30th in the league in rushing defense a year ago. It is also a spot that needed depth, as no Jaguars player started more than nine games last year at the position.
Tufele will look to impress head coach Urban Meyer, who spent a career at Ohio State coaching up players around Tufele’s age. Meyer is excited to coach Tufele up; Meyer’s joked in a press conference that he would break Tufele apart for choosing to commit to USC over Ohio State. Because of the rotating door that exists at the interior defensive line position in Jacksonville, Tufele will have a good chance to become a rotational player as a rookie to help improve the team’s poor run-stopping ability.
In a somewhat surprising development, junior wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown fell to the fourth round but was taken early on Day 3, going seventh in the round and 112th overall to the Detroit Lions. USC’s top pass catcher in 2020 could have been a third-round pick after strong 2020 production, catching 41 passes for 478 yards and seven touchdowns.
He will enter a very crowded receiving corps; despite the departure of Kenny Golladay, the Lions brought in veterans such as Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams to help Jared Goff in his first season in Detroit. St. Brown will have to have a strong training camp this summer to prove to new head coach Dan Campbell that he can be a dependable option his rookie season, but he has the route-running skills, explosiveness and catching ability to be a strong offensive weapon.
General manager Brad Holmes also praised St. Brown’s blocking ability, saying it gives him a high floor. Those intangibles should help him get onto the field at least in some running downs in his first year in the league.
Safety Talanoa Hufanga was the only Trojan taken in the fifth round, going 180th overall to the San Francisco 49ers with a compensatory pick. Hufanga is listed as a safety but played almost as a linebacker in USC’s defense, flying around the football field and often lining up close to the line of scrimmage pre-snap. He recorded 62 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and four interceptions. He was the top defensive playmaker on his team in his final season and won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
Safety is a position that general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan addressed in free agency as well as the draft; they signed Tavon Wilson and Jaquiski Tartt to one-year contracts. Hufanga will likely compete for a backup spot in his rookie season, but his excellent instincts and playmaking ability could serve as a valuable asset for Shanahan on special teams, where he should be able to rank up numerous tackles over the course of the year.
Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu was the fifth and final draft pick from USC in 2021. He was taken with the fifth pick in the sixth round, 189th overall, by the Philadelphia Eagles. Tuipulotu helped anchor USC’s defensive front line in Tufele’s absence, racking up 23 total tackles and two sacks in the six-game season.
The defensive line was a point of emphasis for general manager Howie Roseman on draft weekend; the team also selected defensive tackle Milton Williams out of Louisiana Tech in the third round. Roseman wants the unit to get younger since Fletcher Cox is now on the wrong side of 30 years old and the defense was in the bottom 10 in the NFL in terms of rushing yards allowed per game. Still, Cox will be a great player for the ex-Trojan to learn from in his rookie year, and he will compete in training camp for a rotational spot in the defensive line, giving some older players a breather along with Williams.
Two other draft-eligible Trojans, cornerback Olaijah Griffin and wide receiver Tyler Vaughns, both went undrafted over the weekend but found their NFL homes shortly afterward. Griffin signed a deal with the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent, and Vaughns will rejoin his former teammate Michael Pittman Jr. as a member of the Indianapolis Colts. Both players will fight uphill battles in training camp, trying to beat out both veterans and other draftees at their position groups to earn roster spots come September.
Of the five players drafted out of USC, all but one, Hufanga, will be heading to teams with first-year head coaches. That could be significant because most rookie coaches will emphasize competition above everything else during training camp. While players such as Tuipulotu and St. Brown may not have been the most highly touted prospects coming into this draft, they will have months ahead of minicamps, training camp and preseason games to show their coaches they belong in the NFL.
Many Trojans fell below their projected draft positions, possibly because of a short final season in the Pac-12. Now, everyone is on equal footing, from pick No. 1 to pick 259, and these five athletes will try to build on and surpass their college achievements to become long-term professional football players.