Written by Dave Dulberg, USC blog contributor
Name - J.R. Tavai
Position - Defensive lineman
Class - Freshman
Size - 6'2", 270 lbs.
High School - Mira Costa HS (Manhattan Beach, CA)
Comparison - As an undersized defensive lineman, Tavai (pictured right by SCPlaybook.com) sees himself as a pass rusher who could play on the line as a DE/DT or off it as an OLB a la former Trojan Clay Matthews. While he lacks the size of Bears' sack specialist Julius Peppers, Tavai says he enjoys watching the perennial All-Pro play every Sunday and hopes he can emulate Peppers' technique at the collegiate level.
Prep Career - Although not heavily recruited out of high school, Tavai was the total package at Mira Costa High School. Starring as the team's FB and DE, Tavai put up big numbers on both sides of the football. In 2009, he was named the All-CIF Western Division Defensive MVP after he recorded seven sacks and 92 tackles. In 2010, Tavai made a name for himself not only on the line (12 sacks and 95 tackles), but in the backfield (278 yards and 3 TDs) en route to receiving the All-Bay's League MVP award.
Transition to USC: After being spotted during his senior year by assistant head coach Monte Kiffin, Tavai came to USC as somewhat of an unknown. Due to his athleticism and the hole left by the departure of Stanley Havili, the coaching staff mulled over the idea of having Tavai play fullback. However, as fall camp opened up, it was clear Tavai was a natural on the line. While he began the season paying his dues behind veterans Wes Horton and Devon Kennard, an injury to Horton in the Stanford game pressed Tavai into action (two second half tackles vs. the Cardinal). In five games this season, the freshman has recorded three total tackles.
Kiffin on Tavai: "He's just a natural player that isn't necessarily a height, weight or speed guy. That's why he wasn't as highly rated as some of these other guys, but he's going to be a really good player for us."
In his own words: "I didn't mind all of [the talk of me being undersized], I just stuck to the weight room, tried to get back on the field by working out every day. I have to keep doing it to continue this."
Here's the Trojans' next rising star on the defensive line...