Endangered Species: USC fullbacks find a role

Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner play a position that may not be in college football much longer, but the USC fullbacks have gone from endangered species to valuable assets for the Trojans due to their ability to adapt.

What do you do when your livelihood is threatened? What do you do when your position is going the way of the drop kick, the single wing offense, giant shoulder pads and crop top uniforms? Okay, maybe the crop top has seen a bit of a revival. But what is a player supposed to to when his position is becoming extinct in the game of college football?

Adapt or die.

When USC’s matchup with Washington finally gets underway tonight at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, you are guaranteed to see one player on the field. Hot or cold, rain or shine redshirt senior Soma Vainuku will be one of the 11 Trojans to take the field.

The Trojans may win the toss and elect to receive the opening kick or Washington may choose to try to keep the USC offense from getting into a rhythm right off the bat. Regardless, Vainuku will be on the field for the opening kickoff, either racing down the field to attempt to decapitate a Huskies kick returner or setting up a faux wedge that will try to springboard Adoree’ Jackson to a long return with a couple of key blocks.

In the latter scenario, Vainuku will likely be joined by fellow fullback Jahleel Pinner. Though the two play an increasingly endangered position, both have grown into valuable players.

While the fullback position has waned across the land, USC has a pair of co-starters at the position. Though the Trojans have actually started a game with a fullback in the lineup only once in their first four games, Pinner and Vainuku have important roles across different facets of the game.

“You just have to adapt. That's just life in general,” Vainuku said. “Things change. You have to find new roles on the team.”

“Whatever the coaches give me an opportunity with, I've just got to pull through,” Pinner said. “I know [opportunities] are going to be short, like at the fullback position. There's not a lot of big play opportunities, but whenever you get on the field, you just want to make whatever play it is.”

Vainuku is once again amongst a handful of candidates for USC’s Special Teams Player of the Year. He’s the bowling ball in the middle of the action streaking down the left side of USC’s kickoffs where the Trojans have kicked the ball all season. He has four tackles this season and recovered the fumble caused by Quinton Powell just before halftime against Arizona State.

“Being a young guy when I first got here, not really knowing much about special teams, a lot of the older guys told me that will get you drafted one day, that will get you spots on teams,” Vainuku said. “I took that advice and made sure I did anything I could to be on any and every special teams that I could.”

The No. 31 can also been sprinting down the field on punt coverages and field goal blocks. He nearly had a punt block against Idaho, but somehow slid under the punter’s leg.

Soma Vainuku

“I thought I blocked it. I'm surprised I didn't. I think I didn't get my other arm across, but that one hurt though.”

Vainuku also can be used in short yardage and goal line situations as a heavy back. He presents one of the best downhill rushing options for the Trojans and excelled when given chances during the spring and during fall camp. But he has only one carry for three yards this season as USC has relied more on zone read runs that straight ahead attempts through the first four games and with the plethora of running backs the Trojans have utilized, Vainuku hasn’t been needed in that regard.

The 6-foot, 255-pounder from Eureka said everyone enjoys running the ball. It “feels like home” to Vainuku after being a tailback his entire life, but he takes “big pride” in the other aspects of the game. Vainuku is also a pass-catching threat. He has 17 catches for 124 yards and a touchdown in his career.

Vainuku came to USC a year before Pinner and the two have been linked ever since. Vainuku brought Pinner under his wing and shared the craft that had been passed down before him.

“Definitely like a big brother because he was here before me and he learned from the greats like Xavier [Grimble], Randall [Telfer], Rhett Ellison,” Pinner said. “A lot of stuff he learned from them technique-wise, he's tried to teach me, so that I can do what I do on the field.”

But now the student has overtaken the teacher for the starting role. Pinner has taken almost every first-team rep when the Trojans have used a fullback or the F-back position, which most often lines up on the end of the line beside and a step behind the tight end. Pinner has become the Trojans’ go-to blocker when they want to create a hole on the edge.

It may sound strange, but outside of Adoree’ Jackson, Pinner may be USC’s biggest key to an explosive offense. Don’t believe it? Pinner has been in for 64 offensive snaps. One was a kneel down before halftime, so that leaves 63 attempts to gain yards. On those 63 offensive snaps with Pinner on the field, USC has gained 555 yards or an average of 8.8 yards!

Pinner sometimes stays in to pass protect and other times is a potential check down receiver. He had two receptions against Idaho and even showed some moves making a couple of Vandals miss tackles.

“We can do more stuff than the typical fullback,” Pinner said. “Me and [Soma] are both pretty agile, pretty fast guys if we can get out in the open. We both can catch the ball in the flats or any type of fullback routes they want us to run.”

With Pinner in the game, Cody Kessler is 14-for-21 for 257 yards and four touchdowns. He was also sacked once. Those are numbers any coach would be satisfied with.

The bigger offensive boost has shown itself to be when Pinner is lead blocking for one of the Trojans’ stable of running backs. Pinner has been on the field for 41 rush attempts by the Trojans — none by Pinner. On those attempts, USC is averaging 7.4 yards and has five touchdowns.

“I think he’s doing a great job right now, just playing at a really, really high level,” USC offensive coordinator Clay Helton said. “Playing without the ball too. We always talk about the quality of play, not the quantity of balls that come to you.

“He’s made every catch that he’s been given and every opportunity the ball has come his way, he’s made his play. His blocking in the run game has been phenomenal. Him and Soma are just extremely valuable to our team.”

Remember Tre Madden’s 65-yard touchdown run in the opener that saw him break one tackle, cut back and be gone to the house? The one where Max Tuerk and Viane Talamaivao are down the field throwing big blocks? What you may have missed was Pinner coming in motion and then completely flattening a guy in the hole to get Madden to the second level of the Arkansas State defense.

“He’s gotten better every year, every practice really. He’s way more physical,” Madden said of Pinner. “He runs his feet on contact and understanding the plays more, widening out defenses more so our holes are bigger and getting us through there. He’s a real smart, cerebral guy.”

Madden thinks it helps that both Pinner and Vainuku played running back in high school because “they understand what we’re looking for in the blocks and where we want to go.”

Catch. Block. Run. Tackle. Fullback. Wideout. F-back. Kick coverage. Punt coverage. Kick return. Offensive. Special teams. Whatever is needed, USC’s two senior fullbacks can do it. Give either of them a chance to throw and that’ll probably be completed too.

The two have very rarely been put on the field together, but maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. The Trojans went with a power triangle pistol look against Arizona State where Kessler had a fullback to each side of him and a running back behind him. When they did, they marched right down the field behind Ronald Jones II’s rushing and then used a play-action fake to go over the top to Isaac Whitney for an uncontested touchdown.

And the best thing is Vainuku and Pinner are both pushing each other to achieve more.

“We’re piggybacking off of each other and making sure that if one goes down, we don't lose production and it just keeps going forward,” Vainuku said.

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