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Why Palaie Gaoteote IV is USC’s next defensive star

USC Trojan fans can expect big things from the sophomore this season.

USC Trojans fans: It’s time to familiarize yourself with the name Palaie Gaoteote IV. The former five-star recruit appeared in USC’s final seven games last season at various linebacker positions, after being sidelined for the first few weeks of the season while recovering from surgery on a torn meniscus suffered in fall camp.

As a true freshman, Gaoteote energized the USC defense with flashes of explosiveness and brilliance that have fans wondering if he can be the next Trojan to add his name to the list of All-American linebackers that have worn the cardinal and gold. In response to Gaoteote’s impressive start, there were rumblings among the team and fans that Gaoteote would be given the hallowed No. 55 jersey, which has been donned by USC icons Junior Seau and Willie McGinest, among others.

The significance of this honor can not be understated. The jersey hasn’t even been worn by a Trojan linebacker since 2014. Essentially, it’s a huge deal, but no one is saying Gaoteote isn’t deserving of it.

Last season, Gaoteote spent most of his time on the field at the “mike”, or “middle” linebacker position of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s 4-3 defense, a more centrally located position which has more run-stopping and pass-coverage duties. However, with John Houston making the move to the “mike” this year and taking on the duties of defensive play calling, Gaoteote will move outward to the “will” linebacker position. As the “will”, Gaoteote will serve as the weak side linebacker for the Trojans, a position that he has expressed excitement for, sharing in an interview with that the position change allows him to play “a little bit more aggressive”, at a much quicker pace than the “mike” allowed him to play.

Gaoteote’s 6-foot-2, 250 pound frame will likely suit him well as a weak side linebacker, especially as his pass-rushing duties are expected to increase dramatically. Getting to the quarterback is a huge emphasis for the Trojans this season, and Gaoteote is at the top of the list of expected contributors in that department. To no one’s surprise, Gaoteote is excited about his chance to rush the passer more in 2019, as he has expressed plans to “live in the backfield” in 2019.

Gaoteote has also displayed the mental toughness and accountability that Trojan fans have been clamoring for from their team in recent seasons, as he responded well to being benched against Arizona State last season for porous run defense and gap containment. Rather than sulk over his struggles, Gaoteote decided to look at the “business side” of the decision, and understood he needed to improve to get back on the field.

“I didn’t really take it to the heart,” Gaoteote revealed, explaining that being benched was a learning and motivating experience for him.

As for the 2019 season, Gaoteote has expressed his keen on playing more “downhill” and “fast, physical football”, but after watching film of the 2018 season, Gaoteote should hope to improve upon his vocality on the field, as well as his eye discipline when reading the backfield during and before plays.

Coming in to his sophomore season, Gaoteote will look to take advantage of his starting spot and build upon what was a promising freshman season. Unburdened by injuries this time around, Gaoteote will be looking to carry the momentum from a strong spring and continue his growth into the fall. While some critics point to his 250 pound size as a concern for an outside linebacker, who are typically expected to hover around 220 pounds, game film from last season shows that speed and agility are no concern for Gaoteote, as his mobility and pursuit were right up to speed in nearly every game he competed in.

Although the nuances of his new position may pose a bit of a learning curve and force Gaoteote to go through a bit of an adjustment period at the start of the season, his physical talent and mental resilience will likely make this adaption period rather quick for the Bishop Gorman graduate.

While fellow second year players Olaijah Griffin and Isaac Taylor-Stuart have continued to raise eyebrows and are expected to start this season, Gaoteote edges them out in my book due to the playing time and experience he gained last season. Griffin played in eight games but was mostly limited to special teams work, as he battled a nagging shoulder injury for most of the season. Taylor-Stuart, similarly, only saw action in three games before suffering an ankle sprain against Colorado that effectively ended his 2018 season and turned the year into a redshirt season. Thus, while there are many intriguing talents on the defensive side of the ball for USC this upcoming season, Gaoteote has both the physical and mental tools to take the next step in his progression and development, and truly solidify himself as an elite linebacker talent on the collegiate level in 2019.