Marlon Tuipulotu: Path to the NFL DRaft
After an impressive performance at the 2021 Reece’s Senior Bowl, and a productive career at the University of Southern California, Marlon Tuipulotu heads to the 2021 NFL Draft with his stock soaring. An athletic, powerful, defensive tackle who excels at stopping the run, he knows exactly how he can dominate, while acknowledging that he has some areas to improve.
“I feel like I stop the run well. I’m able to hustle to the football. I’ve shown that I can develop as a pass rusher. I know what I bring to the table, but I know that there’s still work to be done.”
Showing What He Can Do
The USC defensive tackle is coming off the best year of his career. In one of the most disrupted seasons in college football history, Marlon Tuipulotu was named to the All-PAC-12 First Team after logging 23 tackles, 3.5 for loss, with 2 sacks, and a forced fumble. With all the pre-season uncertainty, he points to it as the highlight of his football journey so far.
“After that late start, that first game of this last season I felt like I was able to show what I’m really capable of being as a football player. Being disruptive, being dominant as a football player on the field. I felt like I showed that in that first game of the year.”
In what was an uncertain time, it always helps to have a support bubble close at hand. Thankfully for Marlon Tuipulotu, his final year at USC was shared with the perhaps the best support system possible. Cousin Talanoa Hufanga heads to the 2021 NFL Draft with him out of USC. Meanwhile, little brother Tuli is in the early stages of his football journey with the Trojans.
“It’s been great. They’re my support system. Just having them around, you can’t go wrong with family. Just having them around, going to school with my little brother and Talanoa, it’s definitely a blessing for sure.”
Family is a big reason that Marlon Tuipulotu is in this 2021 NFL Draft process. His cousin Fili Moala is a former USC Trojan who went on to play in the NFL for the Indianapolis Colts. However, it was a different family member that instilled a love for the game and provided inspiration to play himself.
“Growing up watching my older brother playing football. He played high school football and JUCO football. Just watching him, I always had a love for the game and then a desire to want to play. I didn’t get to play until my freshman year in high school.”
Having grown up in California, the Tuipulotu family moved to Oregon where Marlon would start his football journey. Far from the fast-paced city life if he’d been accustomed to, it was an adjustment off-the-field. However, on the football field at Independence High School he flourished.
“Moving there, having been raised in California, it was a big difference. Kind of like a shock, I guess. Moving from the big city to a small town where everyone knows each other. That was a bit surprising. But, that was my first time playing football, just going with the flow, trying to go out there and have fun.”
Introduction To Wrestling Brings Reward On The Football Field
As well as having fun, his high school career helped him develop into the violent, explosive, defensive lineman that heads to the 2021 NFL Draft. He cites his high school football influences as Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins. Additionally, an introduction to wrestling helped formulate some of the attributes he brings to the football field.
“I never really heard of wrestling until I moved to Oregon. Once I got there, they were telling me how much it could help with football. Once I decided to wrestle, I feel like it really did help me. Just having violent hands, being strong, understanding the opponent’s body, trying to manoeuvre it so it could benefit myself, understanding leverage. I feel like it definitely did help.”
A 285-pound state wrestling champion as a junior, Marlon Tuipulotu took the skills learned there and took them onto the football field. A wrestling background is often seen as an indicator for offensive tackle success, and he lined up on both sides of the trenches for Independence. Again, lessons learned there helped him hone his craft as a defensive player.
“In high school coaches want their best players to play, so they put me on the o-line. Understanding stances things like that. Understanding if I lean a certain way, that’s where the opponent will go. Little things like that in high school. However, defense was the place I felt like I could succeed the most.”
A 300lb Reggie Bush?
He wasn’t wrong. An All-State Class 5A Defensive Player of the Year as a junior, Marlon Tuipulotu was named the All-Oregon Defensive Player of the Year as a senior in 2016. The accolades and the opportunities that they opened up rank as the highlights of his high school football experience.
“Receiving the Player of the Year, and then receiving the invitation to the Army Bowl. Just understanding that that’s where the most decorated, the most talented players in high school go play at. It showed me what the college would be like. Going up against the best players in high school, that was definitely a fun experience.”
He came out of Independence as a four-star recruit and the number one player in Oregon. Despite a raft of early offers, and an early commitment, the lure of his childhood home proved to be the deciding factor in choosing the next stop on his football journey.
“Pretty much got recruited mainly by the Pac-12 and a few schools out east before I committed early to the University of Washington. I was pretty solid on my commitment there until the last second when I decided it was best for me and my family to move back to California and play at USC. It’s actually pretty funny because growing up, USC were a powerhouse. So, watching Matt Leinert and Reggie Bush made me want to be a running back as a kid.”
Marlon Tuipulotu arrived at a USC team that were coming off a Rose Bowl win during Clay Helton’s first full season in charge at the Trojans. Expectations were high for a team that had ranked as high as third in the AP Poll in 2016. The freshman defensive tackle had impressed during Spring practice and it was anticipated that he would make an immediate impact on Saturdays.
Unfortunately, 2017 saw Tuipulotu suffer the first setbacks in his football career. An early knee sprain was followed by a season-ending back injury.
“It was definitely a tough experience. There was some early adversity in my career. Being away from football for so long, that was tough to deal with. Not seeing my teammates, not being around them as much, that was definitely tough. But, I feel like it helped me grow as a football player and a person after that injury occurred.”
Over the next two years, Marlon Tuipulotu would become one of the most productive interior defensive linemen in the PAC-12. Although the results for USC were below the expectation for the program, he proved to be a disruptive and dominant defender.
During those two seasons he registered 79 tackles including 11.4 for loss, while also securing 6.5 sacks from the nose tackle position. His strength and violence were demonstrated with a first career forced fumble in the 2019 season opener against Fresno State.
Staying Prepared Pays Dividends
Then came the 2020 college football season, possibly the most disrupted in history. The PAC-12 took an early stance that they wouldn’t play until the Spring of 2021. The decision saw multiple players – including his USC teammate Jay Tufele – opt out and declare for the 2021 NFL Draft. However, Marlon Tuipulotu stayed prepared and when the PAC-12 decided to return for a shortened fall season he was ready to go.
“It was definitely different, but I wouldn’t say it was difficult. I used that time during quarantine to work on my personal game, seeing things that I could do to help myself become a better football player. Whether that was on the field or watching tape, things like that. Just trying to help me gain a slight advantage once the season came through. Luckily it did, and I feel like I was able to show that hard work in quarantine throughout the season.”
After a 5-1 season where USC made it to the PAC-12 Championship Game, Marlon Tuipulotu had a decision to make. With a remaining year of eligibility, he could return to the Trojans for another go around or head to the 2021 NFL Draft.
“I just wanted to play the season out and see how I did. Once I played the season I sat down with my family and spoke with my coaches. I just felt like it was best for me to take that next step and declare for the NFL Draft.”
Senior Bowl Experience
The next step on his path to the NFL Draft took him to Mobile, Alabama. The Senior Bowl is always a vital part of the process, but in this most disrupted of times, it may be more important than ever.
“I feel like it was a huge thing that the Senior Bowl was able to do. After not having the combine this year I think it was a place where I helped myself, showed teams what I’m capable of doing. Just showing that those question marks, those things that I needed to work on, being able to show that I could do that during the week.”
During the week, he was on the American Team that was coached by Matt Rhule and the Carolina Panthers coaching staff. It was a vital learning experience where he relished the opportunity to learn.
“I thought it was a great experience. It was my first experience of working with an NFL team. Going there and competing with the best seniors in college football, going against those guys and trying to learn from those coaches. I was just trying to learn from them, trying to listen, trying to be all ears, and just trying to be like a sponge and take everything in.”
"Violent, Quick & Explosive"
Tuipulotu is currently out in Arizona working with EXOS Sports to prepare for the USC Pro Day on March 24th. As he alluded to before, there’ll be no NFL Combine this year. With opportunities to impress NLF front office staff more limited than ever before, the Pro Day will be the biggest chance to show a team what Marlon Tuipulotu brings to the table.
“I’m just going to go out there and show them what I’m able to do, show them my athleticism. That’s the main thing. Just show them my athleticism in position drills.”
Although he’s had the opportunity to talk with all 32 teams at the Senior Bowl and has virtual interviews with the New Orleans and Green Bay Packers already booked in, most evaluation will be based on film. He describes his game as “violent, quick, and explosive” while pointing to one play against Arizona State that sums up the key elements of what he can offer to an NFL team.
“There’s one play against Arizona State. It was a screen play. Just being able to show that I can dissect plays. But not only being able to dissect plays but I can hustle to the football. Whether that’s down the field or at the line of scrimmage, I can hustle to the ball no matter where it’s at.”
A Family Blessing
In a little over two months, USC defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu will find out if he – and cousin Talanoa – will follow his cousin Fili into the NFL. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com gives the interior defensive lineman a potential starter grade. Meanwhile Tony Pauline of Pro Football Network gives him a 5th round grade in his latest big board.
As he considers what hearing his name called in the 2021 NFL Draft will mean to him, it comes as no surprise that the gentle giant who transforms into a monster on the field, finishes by referencing the impact it will have on the greatest influencers of his football journey.
“It would be a huge blessing. That’s been my goal since I started playing football. Just to hear my name called would be a huge blessing for me, but also for my family.”
OLIVER HODGKINSON IS A COLLEGE FOOTBALL WRITER FOR THE TOUCHDOWN. HE ALSO WRITES ON THE NFL FOR THE PRO FOOTBALL NETWORK. YOU CAN HEAR HIS OPINIONS ON ALL THINGS COLLEGE FOOTBALL AS ONE THIRD OF THE COLLEGE CHAPS PODCAST.
Huge thanks to Marlon Tuipulotu for taking the time to speak to us.