The USC Trojans recently received another commitment from three-star defensive tackle Brandon Pili. The Portland, Oregon product is not a highly rated recruit (only the 60th best defensive tackle in the nation according to the 247Sports Composite Rankings) but his potential is far greater than many of those rated similarly. Plus, Pili fills a big hole as the Trojans need bodies at the nose tackle position after the graduation of Stevie Tu’ikolovatu and departure of Noah Jefferson. Pili may not have earned major accolades during recruiting season, but there is a good chance he makes up for that and then some in the Coliseum.
Listed at 6’4” 310 lbs., Pili has perfect size for the nose position in Clancy Pendergrast’s 5-2 scheme. The primary role of this position is to take up two blockers in the middle in order to allow the defensive end and tackle to not have to face double teams. Stevie T was the perfect example of how to perfectly execute this role, and his performances could land him as a day 2 draft pick in April. Pili does not yet have Tu’ikolovatu’s strength, experience, or technique, but he does have more athleticism and a better frame that gives him the potential to be even better.
For all of Pili’s 310 pounds, the big lineman is an excellent athlete. The value of his highlight film is relatively minimal due to the poor levels of competition he faced, but one thing that really stands out is his quickness. One of the most important aspects of being a good defensive tackle is the ability to quickly get out of your stance and get the first punch against the offensive lineman. Pili excels in this area and it allows him to use his massive frame to his advantage as he pushes offensive guards and centers into the backfield.
The two biggest limitations of playing against weak competition is the step-up Pili will have to make in terms of technique and strength. Most of the lineman Pili lines up against are at least 50-60 pounds lighter. This makes Pili’s job relatively easy as no high school player with that much of a size differential will ever be able to hold up against a player the size of Pili. At USC, though, Pili will need to continue adding muscle and strength to his frame. Facing lineman the same size or heavier will become the new norm for Pili and most of the time he will even be tasked with having to occupy two of them at one time.
This dramatic step forward in terms of competition level and role on defense could make Pili’s learning curve steep. The development of a player is extremely unpredictable especially when that player is coming from low levels of high school competition. Pili could immediately come in and make an impact in fall camp to earn a spot in the rotation, but at this stage, expecting that type of immediate development would be extremely optimistic.
Pili has basically never needed to work on hand usage or the techniques of using his body to gain leverage against offensive lineman. These skills are not developed overnight and will take work. Being that Pili is not an early entrant (meaning he will not arrive on campus until the summer) he will only have a month to work on those areas before the season starts. As a result, it appears unlikely that Pili will avoid a redshirt season especially with USC bringing in multiple defensive linemen this recruiting cycle.
Redshirting is never fun for young players that want a taste of college football, but Pili’s time on the sidelines could be short lived. If he can put in the work in the weight room and on the practice field, there should be no reason why he cannot become a significant part of the rotation in 2018. That being said, not every player is built to play early in their college career and that could be the route Pili takes. His physical attributes give him the potential to be a difference maker at nose tackle, but if he does not take well to the step up in competition and struggles with hand usage and body leverage, Pili could be on the sidelines most of his career.
Recruits that come out of high school never having faced top level competition inherently have more risk than those playing against other division one players. Pili is certainly in the former category and it makes his immediate outlook at USC relatively unclear. This lack of clarity is a byproduct of players in Pili’s situation, but the Trojans believe that his tremendous physical attributes and the projection in his frame are worth the risk that comes with his lack of polish.
The projected starter at nose tackle in 2017 is Josh Fatu who only has one more year of eligibility. Behind him, Jacob Daniel is the only other nose tackle currently on the roster (Kevin Scott’s future is unclear). USC is adding multiple defensive lineman this cycle who could also compete with Pili, but his size and quickness for a man his size is elite. Pili’s raw athletic ability gives him dynamic upside and if defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze can unlock it, USC will have a huge weapon on the interior of the defense.