This is Monte Kiffin's 45th season coaching football at either the pro or collegiate ranks.
In that time, he's come across his fair share of both top prospects who don't live up to the hype and diamonds in the rough who exceed it.
Even so, though, a guy like J.R. Tavai gets him excited. Because Kiffin is well aware of how rare it is to find a complete unknown one year and have him playing meaningful snaps for you the next. It just doesn't happen very often.
But it happened with Tavai, USC"s slow, undersized-yet-super-productive freshman defensive tackle. Back in March 2010, Kiffin found the then-6-1, 240-pound 17-year-old practicing with high school team during the spring before his senior season -- only a couple months after Kiffin moved to Southern California from Tennessee for the first time.
"It was exciting as a coach, really," Kiffin said. "I went down to the South Bay, my recruiting area, and I stopped by Mira Costa High. And the head coach, the defensive coordinator and the D-line coach all said you should look at this guy we have. So I looked at him -- not knowing his name at all -- and he played fullback and defensive tackle both ways and he played it well and I just started following him.
"Then he came to our camp, and he really stood out. Nobody could block him. Yeah, it's high school kids, but nobody could block him."
The camp in question was the Rising Stars Camp, held on the USC campus on June 23 and 24 of 2010. All of the Trojans' coaches were in attendance, and they all saw Tavai's dominance first-hand. And that's how they became convinced -- or almost convinced -- that he was a Division I prospect. Because, before that, everyone else had scoffed at Kiffin's high praise of the kid he found at Mira Costa.
"We’re kind of like, the guy’s short, he’s not very big, there’s no way," says Kiffin's son Lane, USC's second-year head coach. "Sure enough, he came to camp, had a great camp. We watched him on film playing great. He’s just a natural player who isn’t a height-weight-speed guy.
"That’s why he wasn’t as highly rated as these other guys. But he’s going to be a really good player for us."
Even then, USC didn't offer him. Knowing that no other major colleges had their eyes on him, the Trojans decided to wait until after his senior season. When he finished with 95 tackles and 12 sacks, they offered him a scholarship the week after his season ended and he accepted it on the spot.
So Tavai enrolled at USC this past summer, coming to school expecting to be a practice player his freshman year. But the coaching staff didn't treat him as such. They kept telling him to stay ready, which he found a little ludicrous considering there were other significantly more highly-rated tackles in front of him in his same recruiting class: Greg Townsend Jr., Christian Heyward and Antwaun Woods.
But with USC up 38-17 midway through the fourth quarter of the Syracuse game in Week 3, defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron yelled at Tavai to get in the game on the Orange's final offensive possession. He ended up being in for one play, because Dion Bailey forced a fumble right away, but Tavai has played meaningful snaps in four of the six games since.
"I was surprised at that time," Tavai said this week of the Syracuse game. "I couldn't believe it until I got in."
Now, he could play a vital role in Saturday's game against Washington, too, because starter DaJohn Harris has missed the first three days of practice this week. Tavai would become the third tackle if Harris can't suit up, which would complete a remarkable transformation for a kid who's still just 18 years old and now listed at 6-2, 270 pounds as a true freshman.
Really, it'd put him on track to start for the next few years as a Trojan -- to the one-time surprise of just about everybody involved with the USC football program, except for one Monte Kiffin.
"Sometimes it isn't if you're a five-star or a one-star or a zero-star, because I don't even think he had one star," Monte Kiffin says. "But you know what, he's come right in and exceeded all our expectations. Not many guys can come in at Southern Cal and play as a freshman.
"It isn't how big you are, how fast you are, how much you lift. All it really is this: Do you make the play or do you not make the play? And all the years I've been coaching in the NFL: It doesn't matter if you're a first round pick or an undrafted free agent. It doesn't matter if you're the last pick or the first pick."