“He’s a beast. A monster.”
“He’s willing to give up his life on special teams…not give up his career, but give up his life to destroy people. That’s his ultimate goal.”
There’s no sugarcoating it from Zach Banner when talking about USC big hitter Soma Vainuku. A laid-back guy, usually sporting a bucket hat and constantly smiling off the field, once Vainuku steps between the lines he mutates into a 6-foot, 255-pound clock-cleaning ball of fury.
Much like his cousin, linebacker Rey Maualuga, when he was at USC, whether Vainuku is at the fullback position or on special teams, he is searching for someone to hit.
“He puts it on his eye black. It says “FEEL ME.” He wants you to feel him,” Banner said.
Vainuku isn’t just a human wrecking ball — though he is very good at doing that. He’s a special teams maven. He’s a short yardage specialist. He’s a fullback that can catch the ball out of the backfield. He’s a team player, a great example and potentially an NFL player. And yea…he can also destroy you.
“I think I’ve shown NFL teams great abilities as a guy my size to be on all special teams and maneuver around like I can and make plays on special teams. That’s one thing they look at,” Vainuku said. “They see my offensive abilities through my career here earlier and I think it just created the full package with seeing the special teams and the offense together with all the reps I’ve been taking.”
It is an opportunity that has come after a tumultuous time at USC that has featured a bevy of coaches, situations, distractions and more losing than is accepted in Troy.
“I mean we went through hell and back. That’s really how you can explain it,” Vainuku said. “Us seniors, we went through the darkest days for these younger guys to shine out. I believe that.
“It could have went two ways and I think we took it and went in a very positive way with it. Some schools could have been destroyed by it, but being SC with the great leaders that we had, we didn’t do that.
One of those keeping the team together has been Vainuku. A high school running back, he came in knowing he would play fullback. He spent a redshirt year bulking up and taking the advice of all the veterans around him.
“I had a good set of older guys who emphasized for me, when I came in early, of being a pro, making sure you do EDDs — everyday drills. Making sure you do everything right, all the little things because it’s going to pay off in the long run.”
As a freshman in 2012, Vainuku started four games and occasionally got a shot to show off his background as a playmaker, earning seven carries for 26 yards and catching eight passes for 50 yards. The next season he got eight carries (78 yards, 9.8 avg) and caught nine passes (74 yards, 8.2 avg). He made his first touchdown catch against Stanford and a week later scored again when he broke free for a 52-yard touchdown run.
“I’m a big team guy. I want to win. If that involves less playing time or less reps that’s alright with me,” Vainuku said. “As long as my team is benefitting from what I’m doing, that’s all that matters.”
“I got the opportunity to come to the university I’ve always dreamed of coming to. Being able to be a person that they could count on, whether it be on special teams or on offense, was the role that I wanted to play.”
Throughout it all, where Vainuku really shined was on special teams where his combination of size, speed and maneuverability allow him to be a unique coverage weapon.
“I take big pride [in special teams], especially with the fullback becoming extinct in football right now. That's just one of my roles that I picked up,” Vainuku said earlier this year.
“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. I took that advice and made sure I did anything I could to be on any and every special teams that I could.”
Vainuku has spent significant time covering kicks and punts as well as helping out the kick and punt return units. In 2013, he was named to the All-Pac-12 first team as the special teams specialist after he registered 13 tackles and blocked three punts, including one that was returned for a touchdown and one that went out of the back of the end zone for a safety. The effort also earned him USC’s Special Teams Player of the Year.
He repeated that honor this season.
His reputation for bringing the pain on coverage units and another 13-tackle season guided him to second-team All-Pac-12 honors this season and helped him earn the Senior Bowl invite. But what NFL scouts will love even more than his big hits is his selflessness.
“The biggest thing that I have seen, and I think our team has seen, is the unselfishness of a guy knowing his role and perfecting his role,” USC head coach Clay Helton said. “He’s just a special person.
“It goes to show you that when you put the team first and put the team goals first, individual success can happen too. And now he’s going to the Senior Bowl. It just speaks volumes to the rest of our team. You don’t always have to be the superstar name. You can be the guy that just does his job and plays this game for a long time.”