USC's J.R. Tavai ran stride for stride with National team running back Jahwan Edwards as the Ball State senior tried to run a wheel route up the sideline. With Tavai in great position, South Alabama quarterback Brandon Bridge did the smart thing and checked the ball down to Kentucky receiver Demarco Robinson. Tavai adjusted on the fly, breaking off of his coverage to come up and record the tackle.
The third quarter play during the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl was a perfect representation of J.R. Tavai’s potential path to the NFL: adaptation.
The high school running back and defensive tackle is used to adapting. After starting as a defensive tackle in Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 defense at USC, Tavai adjusted (along with the rest of the Trojans) to a pair of new defensive coordinators. He moved to defensive end and then rush end in the multiple front 3-4 defenses of Clancy Pendergast and Justin Wilcox.
From his rush end position, Tavai had some coverage duties, typically in the flats. However, his primary objective was to come off the edge and get to the quarterback. He did that seven times — tying future top five NFL draft pick Leonard Williams for the team lead despite missing two games with a knee injury. Tavai finished his senior season with 53 tackles, including 13.5 for loss.
But during the week of practices leading up to the NFLPA Bowl at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., Tavai played both inside and outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense.
In last Saturday’s game, he lined up exclusively at outside linebacker on defense. He also showed his special teams abilities, covering punts and coming off the edge on field goal block, where he narrowly missed knocking down a kick. At linebacker, Tavai was forced to display his coverage abilities since the game’s rules don’t allow blitzing. While he’ll obviously have to demonstrate the ability consistently, Tavai was able to show his potential in the senior showcase event.
“Mixing it up for a new team with a bunch of people coming in, I adapted to the team,” Tavai said. “I adapted to the scheme. I just had some fun out there.”
“I had a week of good practice. I learned a lot from new coaches. Overall, I just learned to adapt again. That’s something I’m good at and that’s something I’m going to take to the NFL.”
Following a strong week popping pads leading up to the event, Tavai earned the starting role at outside linebacker and was named one of the American team’s captains. On the first play from scrimmage, Tavai came across the formation as the National team ran a play away from him behind the left guard. Chasing from the back side, Tavai ducked between the center and the guard and slammed into the running back trying to veer toward the outside.
It was the first of a team-high six tackles for him on the day. It was also an exemplification of Tavai’s motor and willingness to chase plays from the opposite side of the field. But it’s the drops and coverage skills that he knows NFL personnel are going to be interested in.
“I’m going to have to drop some more. I know that. In the league, there’s a lot more 4-3 defenses, so I’m going to have to adapt to that. I’m either going to have to play the edge at d-end or at outside linebacker. Whatever a team asks me to play, I’m going to play. I just need to get more experience and I think the NFLPA was a great opportunity to get those things better.”
The NFLPA Collegiate Bowl was also an occasion to learn from his peers. Tavai was familiar with several of the participants since there were 21 total Pac-12 players on the final roster — and that doesn’t include guys like USC tight end Randall Teller, who had to withdraw due to injury.
“At first, it was a little rocky. We were quiet, but we slowly got around to hitting each other and we moved on,” Tavai said. “The whole rivalry thing, we moved on from that. We had to become a team and that was just fun for me.”
On the American squad, there were 12 defenders from the conference, including three other linebackers along with Tavai. But it was actually another familiar foe that didn’t play in the Pac-12, Tavai cited as someone he leaned on — Boston College linebacker Josh Keyes. Trojan fans should remember Keyes from his monster game during the twilight zone of a trip to Boston in September. He had eight tackles in that game, including a sack that was part of his whopping 5.5 tackles for loss.
“Josh was in there playing linebacker with me. I learned so much from him. I’m playing a new position and I need to learn, so I asked him. He definitely gave me some good tips.”
Tavai also has had some outside resources, as far away as New York City where former teammate Devon Kennard just spent his rookie season with the Giants. Like Tavai, Kennard showed his versatility and adaptability leading up to the draft. Kennard also endured multiple position changes while at USC before settling into an outside linebacker role in the NFL this season.
“I’ve definitely talked to him about the whole recruiting/NFL process and pro day and what not. I’m keeping in touch with him and I know I can learn some stuff from him. Overall, he told me some things I should do and shouldn’t do and I’m going to go from there.”
While there is sometimes more pressure on players from high profile collegiate programs to perform at the next level, Tavai sees it rather as extra motivation. The USC to the NFL legacy is one he hopes to continue and live up to.
“Coming from USC, we have a history of players making it in the NFL,” Tavai said. “USC has definitely taught me to adapt. That’s what you have to do in the NFL. You’re not going to get the things you want, but the things you need and the things you do get is something you have to take advantage of. That’s what I’m going to do in the NFL.”
Tavai is working hard to make that dream become a reality. His focus is now on the NFL Scouting Combine in late February, for which he said he has already received an invite, and then USC’s Pro Day event in March. Since he is taking just one class this semester, Tavai said he is splitting time between Los Angeles and San Diego where he’s training with 7 Sports Group.
The combine training regiment is different from what players endure on a day-to-day practice basis during the season, but Tavai said USC did a lot of similar drills in the offseason, focusing on the measureable drills that are so popular in the NFL Scouting Combine.
“I’m going to have to do my best at the combine and pro day. I’m more focused on it than ever because this is my future,” he said. “I thought I had a successful career in college. Right now, I’m going to focus on the NFL, on the combine and pro day and I’m going to go from there.”
“I have a lot more strengths than I do have weaknesses. I’m adaptive. I’m strong at the edge. I can set the edge. I’m very physical and if a team chooses me, I’m going to work hard to help them win a championship.”