An All-Conference First Team performer on special teams, redshirt junior Soma Vainuku has worked diligently throughout the summer, and early here into USC Fall Camp, recovering from a spring somewhat limited by injury.
Heading into the season as one of the main fullbacks on the roster, who could also be meshed in the backfield as an explosive ball carrier, Vainuku feels confident that his versatility will lend itself to more success down the road.
"Going back to when Rhett Ellison was here, he really focused on being versatile and I took that to heart," Vainuku says, speaking about the 2011 season when he (a redshirt) learned from the current Minnesota Vikings tight end when he earned First-Team All-Pac-10 Honors. "And now with everything, I just take it and go with it."
Possessed with an impressive display of strength and speed, Vainuku has taken massive steps to refine his total package. Priding his development around lessons learned from Ellison as a spring early-enrollee out of high school, Vainuku has worked long and hard to make his versatile presence felt all over the football field.
"I just try to find a way to get myself out on the field and find my role," said Vainuku. "Wherever they put me. I’ve played fullback my last three years and I’m playing a little different fullback now, but versatility is what they like these days."
While appearing in all 14 games last season, Vainuku had 78 yards on eight carries with one touchdown, plus nine receptions for 74 yards with one touchdown, two punt returns for 16 yards, 13 tackles and three blocked punts with a safety.
Early on in camp Vainuku has been seen all over the field carrying the ball out the backfield, catching passes on those patented wheels routes, all while sprinting up the sideline with a full head of steam. Rest assured, players notice No. 31 working hard.
"The guys on our team definitely know I have a good work ethic towards improving my areas," said Vainuku. "I work real hard to keep the speed and not let my size be a crutch."
Best known for his ability to crash through opposing special teams' for block punts and strong tackles, Vainuku feels that this unit could be even better this season. Coach Sarkisian has warned that the staff doesn't want starters playing on all-four special teams units, but Vainuku loves the challenge of making the best of whoever is on the field.
"I feel real comfortable with our special teams," said Vainuku. "Shoot, most of the starters for our special teams are coming back. I feel real happy with what we have. When you talk to the guys everyday, we say that we can’t let others (do well) and we can’t fall backwards."'
One of the major areas Soma has pledged to improve in is pass catching, something that the entire tailback core will be demanded of much more in this quick-strike offense.
Even still to this day, Vainuku speaks of the disappointment, now turned motivational tool, that burns deep into his soul after dropping a fourth down pass in the end zone from quarterback Max Wittek back in a 2012 game against Notre Dame.
"Going back to two seasons ago, (I'm) trying not to let those dropped passes define my career. I'm trying to improve from there and just going with it."
While that entire goal-line stand was certainly frustrating for everyone involved, Vainuku views that moment as a chance to showcase his work ethic to his teammates making sure nothing like that happens again.
Playing their first full season under special teams coach Johnny Nansen, saying an official goodbye to long-time special teams coach John Baxter, Vainuku firmly believes that change of this level could take them to the next level.
"It's definitely different. Its a good thing, you can’t have the same coach forever and you have to get a new coach somewhere," said Vainuku, adding that, "Then again, it (adding coach Nansen) builds versatility. You take everything we learned from Baxter in our every day lives and on the football field."
Versatility goes hand in hand with Soma Vainuku, who continues to power through Fall Camp practices with a clear mind, some motivation in his chest and a nice combination of speed and strength to really make things happen.