Following USC’s dramatic 20-17 upset victory over No. 4 Stanford last Saturday, a feeling of euphoria overtook Soma Vainuku as he found himself standing atop the ladder leading the famed USC marching band.
“Coming in as a freshman I never thought I’d have the chance to do that, but the band director called me over to go up, and I can’t explain the feeling you get when you’re up there,” the 6-foot and 265-pound fullback said. “Just seeing all of those people looking at you, it was unbelievable. It was really special and I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”
It was a well-deserved moment for Vainuku.
A tireless worker known for his physical brand of play, Vainuku reached the end zone for the first time in his Trojans career against the Cardinal, hauling in a one-yard touchdown pass from Cody Kessler on USC's first offensive series.
The score not only played a significant role in the team’s victory, but it also served a function as a source of redemption for Vainuku, who struggled to catch passes at times in 2012, including against Stanford when he failed to hold on to a ball that would have resulted in six points.
Having refocused his attention this past spring and summer, however, Vainuku has shown vast improvement as a receiver coming out of the backfield with seven catches for 63 yards in 2013, not to mention that touchdown.
“It was really special, especially in that game, to get my first touchdown as a Trojan.” said Vainuku, who also made a 15-yard reception last weekend. “It kind of stuck with me when I dropped the pass in the end zone against Stanford last year. I took it upon myself in the offseason to focus on catching the ball. As a fullback, I don't get many opportunities to catch the ball, and it bothered me that I didn't make the most of the chances that I had last year."
Now he’s capitalizing on seemingly every opportunity that comes his way, and not just on offense. In fact, he’s arguably making even more of an impact on special teams, most notably on the kickoff team where he’s garnered a reputation as the team’s most capable, and feared, playmaker.
"People have been changing their blocking schemes in order to attack Soma on the kickoffs,” USC interim coach Ed Orgeron said recently. “He's such a force."
Vainuku has shown he can swing momentum in the Trojans' favor with one hit -- something Oregon State found out the hard way when he leveled linebacker Joel Skotte on the opening kickoff. And it's that knack for dishing out punishment that Vainuku developed at an early age, thanks in large part to some encouragement from his six older brothers.
“I started playing in the sixth grade, and I was always too big to play in my own age group, so I was with all of the older kids, and I was kind of intimidated,” said Vainuku, who has also blocked two kicks this season. “And then all of my brothers said, ‘Don’t be afraid. Just run down there and hit somebody full-speed, and they’ll stop.’ So, I’ve just been carrying that mentality on my whole life.”
Still, it wasn’t until Vainuku arrived at USC that he really learned the ins and the outs of special teams.
“Just seeing my freshman year how much special teams plays a part in football, it’s just a huge deal,” Vainuku said. “I got that from [Special teams coordinator John] Baxter, and I just make sure that I pay attention to all the little details that he’s been teaching me, because a big play on special teams is just as important as a defensive stop or an offensive score.”
Vainuku’s hard work has most certainly paid off, both in terms of his production on offense as well as on special teams. But with his mindset honed in on taking his game even further, he’s not even close to being satisfied just yet.
“I want to improve each week at fullback and on special teams,” Vainuku said. “There’s always something you can find to work on to improve your game, and that’s my goal.”