The quiet giant: How USC’s Jay Tufele helps lead the defense

Redshirt sophomore Jay Tufele gets in his stance before a play. Tufele has upped his production this season with 32 tackles and 3.5 sacks through 10 games. (Daily Trojan File Photo)

Behind the No. 78 on Jay Tufele’s chest lies a heart for football, family and tradition.

The redshirt sophomore defensive lineman demonstrates his talent every time he steps on the football field. A reliable force on the Trojans’ front, Tufele has appeared in all 22 games since becoming eligible. This season alone, he’s garnered 32 tackles, 17 solo and five for a loss. 

Last year, he blocked what would have been a game-winning field goal for Washington State and ran back a fumble from Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley for a touchdown.

“When we got that sack-fumble in Utah and I took it to the house, that was probably the most fun [play],” he said. “I was back home, and all my family was there … it was just very exciting.”

Tufele certainly paid his dues before earning a chance on the front lines. The highly sought-after four-star recruit from Salt Lake City, Utah, spent his first year at USC learning the team’s sophisticated defense from the sidelines. He put in countless hours mastering the playbook with his head down, spirits up and attention focused.

As a dedicated student of the sport, Tufele wasted no time getting to know his defensive line coach at the time, Kenechi Udeze. Udeze, a former USC defensive lineman and Minnesota Vikings first-round draft pick, sat with Tufele in his office discussing everything from football technique to personal matters.

“There are some kids who are just empty vessels in the learning environment, and then there are some kids who just shine, and they’re really bright because it means something to them,” Udeze said. “Working with Jay was always a privilege because he always gave you what he had. It was never about effort with Jay Tufele.”

Tufele’s effort serves him far beyond athletic output; his nose-to-the-grindstone attitude also extends to his academic and personal pursuits. 

“If Tufele were to go out there and become President of the United States, or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company … it would not be a surprise to me,” Udeze said. “[He] is one of the greatest workers I’ve ever seen at his age. It’s hard not to stare at him and watch him work.”

Even with the success his work ethic has afforded him, Tufele remains extremely humble. The 6-foot-3, 305-pound lineman is so soft-spoken that post-game reporters strain to hear him. He deflects attention to the efforts of his teammates even when he’s the hero of the day.

Mimi Butler, who has been Tufele’s learning specialist since he arrived at USC two years ago, sees a kind, selfless spirit behind the lineman’s daunting figure.

“Nowadays, everyone always [asks], ‘What’s in it for me?’ and ‘What am I going to get out of this?’ and Jay doesn’t look at life like that,” she said. “It’s like, ‘How can I help my family?’ And I just think that’s cool.”

Tufele’s deep sense of family — whether by blood or by choice — has shaped his identity as a player and as a person. He protects those he cares about off the field and on. For him, those connections are more important than any athletic achievement.

“I’m close with everyone, mostly, [but] probably the D-line [the most],” he said. “They’re the first guys I ever got to know [at USC]. We’ve been together for a while, so we’re just like a bunch of adopted brothers.”

Tufele’s family back in Utah was a driving force throughout his college recruitment process. Udeze worked closely with the recruit’s parents and siblings to ensure USC would be a good fit and, subsequently, to smooth his freshman-year transition.

“Tufele was a bright kid, respectful, very humble and just comes from a great family,” Udeze said. “Through the recruitment process it wasn’t just Tufele and I. It was his sister, his mother, his father [and] it was his little brother.”

Butler echoed that sentiment.

“He loves his family,” she said. “He’s very close to everybody in his family, he’s very connected to his family … he really respects his family so much.”

For Tufele and his family, the decision to commit to USC wasn’t a difficult one. The legacy of success and tradition in both the academic and athletic arenas spoke for itself.

“I came on my visit [to USC] with [redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Marlon Tuipulotu], and … the setting, the campus, walking down the All-American Walk just felt like something special,” Tufele said. “I felt like I wanted to be here, and I wanted to be part of it, to be part of this great legacy and school. It’s rich with tradition, and I love it.” 

Since Tufele set foot on USC’s campus two years ago, he’s embodied the Trojan spirit. From participating in spirit rallies to giving his all during the final moments of nail-biting games, Tufele has worked to embed himself in the school’s culture.

Although Tufele has faced several obstacles in his short career — sitting out his freshman season, losing the coach who mentored him through his first two years of college football in Udeze and balancing the demands of sport and school — the people around him have hardly noticed.

“If Jay had a bad day, I could never tell,” Udeze said. “Jay always had a great spirit about himself … and if you meet his family, you know exactly why Jay is more special than just another young man in a jersey. Jay has so many great skills that are going to help him when he’s done playing the game of football.”

As for the current moment, Tufele is focusing on putting his team in the right position to win games. His meticulous attention to detail lends itself to impressive individual stats, but he’s more focused on what he can contribute to the team as a whole.

“My goal is to make sure that on defense, we’re solid up front and my younger guys know what they’re doing,” Tufele said. “Just being able to take every game one by one … hopefully we do that and we get to the Pac-12 Championship.”

From watching from the sidelines his first year to becoming a defensive powerhouse for the Trojans, Tufele’s humility and work ethic allow him to constantly sharpen his skills.

With two years left of eligibility left at USC before he makes his NFL push, it remains to be seen how much Tufele can accomplish with his positive attitude and love for the game.