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Post-Draft Q&A: The L.A. Times on why Jaguars’ Jay Tufele could be a dominant defensive tackle

Tufele was selected out of USC in the fourth round (No. 106 overall) by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2021 NFL Draft.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 27 Arizona State at USC Photo by David Dennis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Here at Big Cat Country, we have slowly made our way through our post-draft Q&A series. Today we have a special treat, as we went outside of the SB Nation network and reached out to Ryan Kartje, a University of Southern California beat writer for the Los Angeles Times.

We asked Ryan about former USC defensive tackle Jay Tufele, who was selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the fourth round (No. 106 overall). While Ryan explains that Tufele still has a lot of fine-tuning to do in his game, he also thinks that Tufele has the potential to become a dominant interior defensive lineman at the NFL level.

Here is what Ryan had to say:

1. Tufele was dominant in 2019, earning All-Pac-12 recognition from several outlets, but sat out in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns. What did Tufele do well as a redshirt freshman and sophomore at USC? And while sitting out last season was certainly warranted in the midst of all of the uncertainty of the pandemic, should Jaguars fans be worried he may have lost a step in his game after a long period away from the field?

Ryan K: Tufele has always had the tools to be a dominant defensive tackle. In terms of brute strength — as well as all-out effort — there were few players in the Pac-12 that could match him.

That often gave him a major advantage as a run defender during his two seasons playing at USC. He could bully lesser offensive linemen, using his tremendous physical tools. But when it came to technical skills, it always seemed as if Tufele had significant room to grow.

Whether he can reach that potential remains to be seen, but while he sat out this past season, strengthening that technique was one of his primary focuses. I don’t think there’s any reason to think Tufele will have lost a step. He had a legitimate reason for sitting out this season — as his sister dealt with COVID-19 — and he spent that time trying to sharpen his game.

It’s going to take some time for Tufele to make an impact, largely because he’ll be facing linemen who can no longer be bullied by brute strength alone. But that technique work should pay off.

2. Are there any aspects of Tufele’s game he needs to improve upon at the NFL level?

Ryan K: Like I said, Tufele could stand to sharpen his technique all around. But if there’s an area of his game that perhaps needs the most work, it’s his pass rushing.

Tufele has the physical tools to be an interior disruptor. He just hasn’t always known how to use them. He’ll need to add some pass-rushing moves to his arsenal, if he hopes to provide the pressure his physical tools suggest he’s capable of.

He had 7.5 sacks in two seasons at USC. I know his college coaches wondered if he could’ve put up more with another season. If he becomes a more well-rounded player, I could see him exceeding those numbers as a rotational defensive tackle.

3. The Jaguars are expected to run a “multiple” scheme under new defensive coordinator Joe Cullen, with both 3-4 and 4-3 base looks. What do you think Tufele’s best role is in the NFL, and is there a certain scheme or alignment you believe he would excel at, or does he offer versatility as an interior defensive lineman?

Ryan K: Tufele lined up as a three-technique and nose tackle at times during his USC tenure, and I think that versatility will serve him well in a multiple defense like the Jaguars are planning to run. He showed the physicality to clog up the middle when shaded on the outside shoulder of an opposing center, as well as the athleticism to shift out further to the outside.

At USC, he played in largely even fronts. I think his best fit, at least initially, would be in 4-3 base looks, but I wouldn’t pigeonhole him into any specific scheme.

The real question will be whether he’s able to stay on the field on obvious passing downs. He’ll need to improve at generating pressure in order to step into a consistent role.

4. Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer and his staff at Ohio State actually recruited Jay Tufele out of high school, who was a highly-touted prospect. Do you believe that relationship Meyer built with Tufele back then played a role in Jacksonville’s decision to draft Tufele? Why or why not?

Ryan K: I can’t say for sure if that’s the case, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt. Tufele was a five-star prospect according to 247Sports and most major schools gave him a close look.

That said, Ohio State was one of his finalists, thanks largely to legendary defensive line coach Larry Johnson. It wouldn’t be a surprise if that familiarity played a part in Tufele’s selection.

5. Tufele has been praised for his work ethic and competitiveness, and Trent Baalke, Jacksonville’s general manager, called him a “plus-two guy,” meaning he’ll give you 12 reps when he’s asked to do 10. While he isn’t known to be a vocal person, Tufele seems to lead by example. Could you see Tufele eventually taking on a leadership role on a young roster for the Jaguars? Does he have any other intangible traits you think are important?

Ryan K: No one at USC ever doubted Tufele’s effort. While he wasn’t the most consistent technically, his drive was always clear. So that makes sense that Baalke would describe him in that way.

To say Tufele isn’t known as a vocal person might actually be an understatement. He was among the quieter starters on USC’s defense during his two seasons. He wasn’t a big fan of doing interviews, and he wasn’t the type to naturally embrace his role as a leader.

But a year off actually seemed to serve Tufele well in that regard. When he met with USC media before the draft, he was talkative and thorough in his answers. It was the least reserved I’d ever seen him. He seemed to have matured quite a bit over that time, and I think we’ll see that translate in Jacksonville pretty quickly.

6. Is there anything else Jaguars fans should know about Tufele?

Ryan K: I mentioned it briefly before, but Tufele’s family had a difficult year with COVID-19. Especially with his sister, Noreen, who spent months in the hospital and nearly died at the hands of the virus.

I get the impression that that experience really changed Tufele, and I think it’s important in understanding just what kind of person he is. Many people told him not to opt out of this season — his draft stock had taken a hit the season before, due to lingering injuries — but he didn’t blink in taking the year off to ensure his NFL future for his family.

You can read my story on that decision here.

A huge thank you to Ryan for taking time out of his busy schedule and providing thorough responses and in-depth analysis into Tufele’s college playing career and NFL projection. Be sure to follow Ryan on Twitter and to keep up with what is going on in Los Angeles, be sure to follow the L.A. Times as well.

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