Vainuku impressing in unusual situation

To say it's unusual would be a gross understatement.

It's not anywhere close to usual a freshman comes into the USC football program as the expected starter at his position come fall.

Sure, guys do it -- Matt Barkley and Robert Woods -- but it's incredibly rare for an 18-year-old to come in as the presumptive No. 1 guy, let alone at a position like fullback, where Pac-10 starters are typically well-built upperclassmen with years of experience at the college level.

But that's the situation Soma Vainuku has entered into this spring for the Trojans. It's partly because of USC's changed circumstances in recent years, with available scholarships at a premium and transfers at a high. But it's also partly because of Vainuku's immediate viability at the spot.

He's 18, but he's 6-2, 255 pounds and built akin to a tank. He was supposed to come in last fall and learn behind the now-departed Stanley Havili, but he failed to qualify out of Eureka High in Northern California and stayed in high school for an extra semester. He ended up enrolling in January.

USC does have other options at fullback -- walk-on Hunter Simmons is one, as is incoming freshman J.R. Tavai, but Simmons doesn't have the speed for the spot and Tavai is better suited as a defensive linemen and won't have any more experience. It's Vainuku's job to lose, and, while a hamstring injury limited him for the first half of the spring, he hasn't come close to losing it yet.

"I feel very honored to be coming in in the spring and getting this extra time in, because I know in the fall you only get three weeks," Vainuku said Tuesday. "It'd be hard to learn all of that in three weeks, and being here in the springtime I'm getting everything I can and learning everything, so when fall comes it's gonna be that much easier for me."

All freshmen are pushed, surely -- some primarily by themselves, some primarily by their coaches, some by both -- but, from the looks of things, Vainuku's been a big focus of the Trojan coaches so far this spring. Running backs coach Kennedy Pola, a former USC fullback himself, spends tons of time with him during practice sessions and then does private film sessions with the freshman in Heritage Hall six times a week.

Vainuku said he did feel like he was being pressured more than normal, but he doesn't seem to mind it.

"A little bit, but that's what I expect from my coaches and everything -- to push me to my fullest," he said. "I just want to get everything as fast as I can and get it in so I can be that player to help out the team that much more."

Vainuku's number this has been 31, sparking many a comparison to Havili, who wore the same No. 31 all five years he spent at USC. But Vainuku, a cousin of former USC linebacker Rey Maualuga, said he didn't pick it in attempt to copy him or anything of that nature.

"It's just Stanley's gone now and I'm here, so I guess that's how they're taking it," Vainuku said.