Portland (Ore.) Westview defensive tackle Brandon Pili has been labeled as a project by most who have seen him play in person, but like any project worth putting time into, the 6-foot-3, 305-pound three-star has the potential to be a centerpiece of the Trojans' defense.
One shade defensive tackles are few and far between on the West Coast. While the Southeast supplies plenty of ready-made 320-pound nose tackles, it’s a position USC had to outsource to fill last season in the form of Utah graduate transfer Stevie Tu'ikolovatu.
Any defense running a 3-4 front, or any variation of a three-man defensive line, needs a nose tackle capable of controlling the middle of an offensive line. USC loses Tu'ikolovatu in 2017 as well as sophomore defensive tackle Noah Jefferson, who also played the one-shade technique for the Trojans.
On the interior defensive line, USC returns eight players, including Kevin Scott, who was deemed academically ineligible for the Rose Bowl, and Kenny Bigelow, who is returning from his second ACL surgery.
Of those players, only junior Josh Fatu has taken any significant reps as a nose tackle with Jacob Daniel playing a handful of snaps at the position throughout his sophomore season. Thus, USC has been aggressive in recruiting a potential replacement for Tu'ikolovatu. Pili, who is originally from Alaska, moved to Portland in order to get more exposure from Pac-12 schools.
Obtaining scholarship offers from USC, Oregon State, Colorado, Ole Miss, Notre Dame, UCLA and Oregon, Pili’s move paid off. He becomes commitment No. 17 for USC in the class of 2017.
Expert opinion with Scout Director Of Recruiting Brandon Huffman
Brandon Huffman is one of the few recruiting analysts nationally who has seen Pili play both with and without pads. He first saw Pili at the Washington Huskies summer camp last summer.
“It was pretty funny because we were sitting in Husky Stadium watching the skill position guys,” said Huffman. “It was just the skill position players because the linemen were coming in the next day.
“So we’re watching all of these tall, lanky wide receivers and small running backs catch passes. Then you look over at the tight ends and you see Pili. I mean, you had some other traditionally sized tight ends there like Hunter Bryant, who is about 6-foot-4, 220-pounds.
“But then you have Pili, this 6-foot-3, 310-pounder, running routes and catching everything. We’re not just talking about him catching a couple of short slants in stride. He was jumping to catching passes, going low to grab passes… I don’t remember him dropping a ball.
“After the first three or four passes, I really started watching him more closely. So did the rest of the crowd because some of those passes weren’t well-thrown balls and here was this 300-pounder catching them like he was a tight end.
“He even looked pretty good running his routes. He looked like he would get a ‘Piesman Trophy’ — that sixth lineman you’d bring in to slip off the goal line and catch touchdown passes. He was a natural pass catcher and moved really well for a 300-pounder.”
Having said all of that, Huffman sees Pili as a nose tackle at USC.
“As sure as the sun, he’s a nose,” said Huffman. “But he’s not just a guy that takes up space. He is athletic and quick enough to beat blockers and get into the offensive backfield.
“He’s big now, but I think he'll get thicker still in college. He’ll put on more muscle and get stronger. He has the natural athleticism and size to eventually be a good player, but he has to fine tune the weight.”
Huffman sees Pili best served taking a redshirt and developing his skill set before being pushed into action.
“He got away with just overpowering kids in Alaska, and even in Oregon, he wasn’t seeing the competition he would in California,” said Huffman. “Even when I went to see Westview play Jesuit, the Jesuit offensive line had Jaxson Kirkland and was much more polished than anything Pili was used to.
“He really couldn’t get penetration because he had no moves. He is used to winning those battles by just bull rushing a lot, so he has to add more technique to go along with the size. He has to get much more technically sound and to make that weight good weight.
“He needs a redshirt year, but it wouldn’t shock me if he ended up in the rotation as a redshirt freshman. he has the talent to do it.”
For months Trojan fans posted on USCFootball.com in a panic over the lack of impact players USC was recruiting in the 2017 class at defensive line. While signing day is still two weeks away, USC is in a decent position to land a class of five defensive linemen.
That class could include players like South Jordan (Utah) Bingham five-star defensive tackle Jay Tufele, Independence (Ore.) four-star Marlon Marlon Tuipulotu and Leesburg (Ga.) Lee County five-star Aubrey Solomon.
Both Tufele and Tuipulotu are officially visiting USC this weekend.
“Tuipulotu is an immediate impact guy,” said Huffman. “Tufele is the best defensive tackle in the West and another guy that will play right away. If you were to tell me USC could potentially bring in Brandon Pili as their third defensive tackle, that’s scary.
“Even if they don’t get Tufele, that combo of Pili and Tuipulotu is still really good. The three together would be an embarrassment of riches.”