Talanoa Hufanga had never thrown a football before he was asked to start at quarterback for Crescent Valley High School his freshman year.
He’s headed to USC as a safety, his letter of intent already signed. But there’s a chance he also gets some time as a receiver on offense. That’s where he said Oregon State was recruiting him, while the University of Virginia reached out to him asking if he’d want to head to the ACC to play quarterback.
He did it all at Crescent Valley.
Well, almost all.
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“I was like, ‘Shoot, put me in on the offensive line, Coach,’” Hufanga laughed. “I was like, ‘Coach, center sneak. I got you!’
“But, no, I never did play any offensive line.”
Hufanga is ranked as the best player at his position in the country by 247 Sports. That position is athlete.
It used to be a word to describe a college football recruit. In today’s era it can define them.
College football craves versatility now more than ever, utilizing players in multiple facets on offense, defense, special teams or combinations of the three.
Just in the Northwest, Hufanga is the No. 1-ranked athlete in the nation, Garfield’s Tre’Shaun Harrison is at No. 4 and Braden Lenzy of Tigard (Oregon) is No. 5.
All are ranked in the top 150 in the country overall, and so are Archbishop Murphy’s Kyler Gordon, Jesuit’s Trey Lowe and South Medford’s Chase Cota, though each project like they could have versatile roles, even though they aren’t positioned as athletes.
“It’s definitely one of the most impressive classes of athletes (in the Northwest) I’ve seen,” said Brandon Huffman, the national college football recruiting editor with 247 Sports.
And no player from Oregon has ever been ranked higher in recruiting circles than Hufanga.
“Being labeled athlete is the best thing I did in my recruitment,” he said. “I was open to playing any position. I didn’t care whether it was special teams – whatever can get me on the field the fastest. That could be both ways, running back, safety, wide receiver, quarterback – whatever can help the team win.”
Hufanga lives on five acres off a dirt road outside of Corvalis, Oregon, where he and his family have raised cows, pigs, goats and sheep.
His parents instilled a work ethic from a young age, when his weekends were spent working on the property, ranging from 30-minute, to seven-hour chores. He’d try to finish as fast as possible to give him more time to go ride his Yamaha dirt bike.
So when he finally got his driver’s license, he used it to wake up at 4:30 a.m. every morning to get to an early workout before school.
“That’s probably the only reason I’m here now,” Hufanga said of his work ethic, which led to so many college letters that he’s left about “67 percent” of them unopened in a pair of tubs at his house.
His coach, Scott Sanders, could track how often each of his players were watching game film on their Hudl website. He said Hufanga was regularly at 15-16 hours a week.
Sanders’ son, Tanner, was a four-year quarterback at Crescent Valley before graduating just before Hufanga’s freshman year and heading to Oregon State. But Sanders saw Hufanga’s athleticism and asked if he’d consider playing quarterback for the first time in his life.
So Hufanga first made his way onto recruit rankings as a QB.
“I still think it might be his best position,” Sanders said. “He was forced to learn the game that way.
“But me wanting to keep him healthy, we moved him to slot receiver this season. He played tailback, quarterback and slot for us. And then on defense he was our ‘monster’ back – like a middle linebacker but we played him at about eight or nine yards so he could drop into coverage as a safety and we could disguise it. Or he would come off the edge and blitz.
“That’s probably why everyone started labeling him as an athlete. Because a lot of recruiters who visited our school weren’t sure where they wanted to play him. Most were like, ‘You tell us what position you want to play and we’ll create that for you.’”
Sanders saw it coming. That’s why he suggested Hufanga should get a second cellphone.
He didn’t, but that’s OK, he said. Because he’s been using his phone the past two weeks to text with his idol, Troy Polamalu – who is also from Oregon before heading to USC and then the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I think he’s in that same mold as Troy Polamalu,” Sanders said. “He looks like him. I had a coach at USC who played with Troy Polamalu and he looked right at me and goes, ‘I’m telling you, I lived in the dorms with him my freshman year, you’re the next Troy Polamalu.’”
“I always dreamed of meeting him,” Hufanga said. “And now he’s giving me this advice on how to be a better player and a better person. It’s been insane. A dream come true.”
Huffman said athlete didn’t become a legitimate position when he was at Scout.com, which was acquired last year by CBS affiliate 247 Sports, in their recruit rankings until about five years ago.
That was when Myles Jack was just heading from Bellevue to being a two-way player for UCLA, with Bellevue’s Budda Baker coming up a year later as part of the same class as USC-bound two-way player Adoree Jackson. Rivals started using athelte as a position in 2005.
Seattle Seahawks receiver Tanner McEvoy played safety, receiver and some QB at the University of Wisconsin.
That was almost 20 years after Charles Woodson’s two-way prowess at Michigan. But back then athlete used to carry somewhat of a negative connotation – like you can play three positions, but you can’t play one great.
“But it got to the point where guys would be upset if they weren’t listed as an athlete,” Huffman said. “Or a college coach would say, ‘Hey, we’re recruiting him as a DB and you guys list him as a receiver. That’s hurting our receiver recruitment.’ It just kind of became a caving into the demands.
“Now you are seeing more guys being able to play a number of positions and colleges just want to get them on the field as quickly as possible.”
Why? And why now?
Most of that stems from modern offenses, with spread systems continuing to take over the college landscape with what it can do with athletes in space. Then there’s the greater three-years-and-done push for players to get out of college football and into the NFL Draft, so Huffman said more colleges can’t afford to waste a year with a player down on the depth chart.
“The game has changed,” said Craig Ruecker, who has coached football for 47 years. He’s now at Oregon’s Tigard High School, and he never before had a freshman play varsity until Notre Dame-bound Braden Lenzy four years ago.
“The essence of the game is still the same – blocking and tackling. The game is still physical. But much more of the field is being used,” he added. “The field is 53 feet, 4 inches wide and it used to be that the plays were utilizing about 30 of the yards. Where now you need to defend all 53 yards of width and you better defend vertically because people are going to line up athletes throughout.”
Kyler Gordon is headed to UW as a cornerback, but he said he talked to the receivers coach about working with the offense, and his coach, Jerry Jensen, said Oregon was recruiting Gordon to play offense. He was primarily a safety for Archbishop Murphy.
“I’m sure he wants to play offense, as long as he gets his defensive time, as well,” said Jensen, a former UW linebacker who was the Carolina Panthers’ fifth-round draft pick in 1998. “Kyler proved he could be athletic in number of positions and that rises his stock.”
Garfield coach Joey Thomas lined Tre’Shaun Harrison at seven different positions this season, including punter.
Tennessee is recruiting him as an outside receiver. Notre Dame and Michigan want him on defense. USC and UW have talked to him about running back.
Thomas said most other colleges have preferred to recruit Harrison at slot receiver.
“But how do those guys transfer to Sundays?” said Thomas, a former third-round draft pick by the Green Bay Packers.
That’s why he said Garfield split Harrison out to wide more this year – after playing running back early in his career and moving to slot receiver some as a junior. Thomas wanted to give his standout athlete a taste of where he might best project further in his football career.
“You can play slot in college, but let’s be real – you don’t see a lot of black slot-only receivers in the NFL,” Thomas said. “We were grooming him for something that was very strategic. When he gets to the next level he’s going to be a slot receiver. But when you get to the NFL, you have to play outside. So we made sure, as a senior, he learned to play outside.”
And just look what has become of college running backs.
At the UW, for instance, freshman Salvon Ahmed would switch between lining in the backfield and receiver, while utilizing his speed on fly sweeps. Chico McClatcher is another one of those hybrid running back/receivers, and neither are bigger tan 5-10, 190 pounds.
Enter Huskies signee Trey Lowe, the 5-foot-7, 175-pound Oregon Gatorade state player of the year who played predominately running back at Jesuit.
“UW really talked about Trey as an athlete,” Jesuit coach Ken Potter said. “But in my mind, when they recruited Trey, they looked at here is a carbon copy of (Chico McClatcher). Here is a kid who is very similar where we can put him in the backfield, get him swing passes, put him in the slot and run pass patterns, isolate him outside, get him in fly motion and get him on a fly sweep – all that kind of stuff.”
That’s why Huffman says the days of a pure running back and pure receiver are over.
“In the old days a kid like Chico McClatcher is not going to be recruited by a Pac-12 school because he’s not big enough to be an every-down running back and not big enough to be a receiver,” Huffman said. “But in the modern offenses he’s crucial because you can use him in a variety of ways. Budda Baker was going to do that at Oregon when he originally committed there (before heading to UW, instead, and now to the Pro Bowl with the Arizona Cardinals).
“You no longer have to be the 6-1, 215-pound running back or a 6-3, 195-pound receiver. You can be 5-8 and be used as a receiver out of the backfield and good luck to the linebacker trying to cover you.”
Potter thought of “Slash.”
Kordell Stewart was called that because of his multi-faceted abilities with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He could play quarterback “slash” receiver “slash” ball carrier – hence the nickname.
“I think most look at Trey as like a slash,” Potter said. “I look at Washington being much more of a program where Coach Petersen looks at athletes and his kind of guys. That’s who Petersen is.”
But it’s also what a lot of college football is.
“There are so many kids nowadays where you just look at their athleticism – and go ‘Wow,’” said South Medford coach Bill Singler, who also has coached collegiately in assistant roles at Cincinnati, Kansas State, Long Beach State, Oregon State, Rutgers and Stanford among others.
He traveled to San Antonio to coach in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, where South Medford’s Chase Cota was selected to play as a wide receiver. Cota is signed to Chip Kelly’s first UCLA recruiting class, but his father, Chad Cota, was a star safety at Oregon before playing eight years in the NFL, and Singler isn’t so sure Cota won’t play defensive back at some point for the Bruins.
“I went down to the All-American game and you just look at all the athleticism of these kids now – these kids nowadays are so versatile,” Singler said. “When I was coaching, you recruited a kid to be a running back or you recruited a kid to be a receiver or a middle linebacker. That’s what they were. Now? I mean, there are too many stallions running around, all at that 6-2, 200-pound range who can play so many different positions.”
“The more imaginative these coaches are being, the more athletes you need,” Thomas said. “These coaches are starting to think outside the box. Football is all about numbers and space, math and geometry, angles and postulates. And the more ways you can show your versatility, the more valuable you are to these college coaches.”
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