Just a little under a week into his new role as USC’s starting 'Mike' linebacker, sophomore Olajuwon Tucker is right where he envisioned himself when he signed on with the Trojans as a talented Class of 2014 prospect out of Gardena (Calif.) Serra.
"This is definitely the chance I’ve been waiting for," Tucker said after practice this week. "It’s the chance that everybody waits for. When you get your opportunity, and your number is called, you just have to go out there and make plays."
With star freshman Cameron Smith (knee) and key veteran backup Lamar Dawson (shoulder) having both suffered season-ending injuries against Colorado, Tucker made his first career start at inside linebacker against Oregon last Saturday. Though his debut certainly didn’t go as planned, with the Trojans falling to the Ducks, 48-28, in a game that was marked by lackluster play on the part of the USC defense, he provided reason for optimism when it comes to his future. He had a team-high nine tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss and 1.5 sacks.
"I saw it as a learning experience," said Tucker, who is known by most of those around him as 'Buddha,' the nickname he was given as a baby in reference to his pudgy build at the time. "For my first start I thought that there were more positives than negatives coming out of the game for me. I think it’s something to build on from there."
That drive to continually improve has been a trademark of Tucker’s since the moment he first stepped foot on campus, and it helps to explain how he was able to step right in and contribute after having played somewhat sparingly in his career up to this point.
"I think I was well prepared for this," said Tucker, who stands 6-foot-3, 235 pounds. "We’re all in the same meeting rooms, we learn the same concepts of the defense, how it moves and which way it shifts, so I was confident going in."
An outside linebacker at Serra, where he racked up 117 tackles, 12 sacks and seven interceptions as a senior, Tucker tapped into that work ethic to make a faster-than-expected transition to the inside upon his arrival at USC -- although, as he explains, the move was more natural than most realize.
"I definitely feel like I’ve found a home on the inside," Tucker said. "Before high school I actually played inside linebacker in Pop Warner, so I really took a four-year break from that. I actually feel like I’m back in my natural habitat."
Now determined to make the most of his newfound opportunity, Tucker has been working harder than ever over the course of the past week-and-a-half.
"Especially since he’s gotten the job, and in this new role that he has to fill, he’s been taking everything in,' said Anthony Sarao, the senior co-captain who starts alongside Tucker at 'will' linebacker. "You see him in the training room, you see him on the field asking questions -- he’s definitely focused."
Up next for Tucker and the USC defense is the Trojans’ crosstown matchup with UCLA on Saturday, with a berth in the Pac-12 title game riding on the outcome. Having grown up locally, he’s fully aware of what the rivalry is all about, and he’s excited to be a part of it.
"This is a big, historic game," Tucker said. "I grew up watching it when I was younger. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to play in it, and to compete against the guys from across town."
But with standout freshman quarterback Josh Rosen and sturdy tailback Paul Perkins leading the UCLA offense, Tucker knows that he and the rest of the Trojans' defensive group will need to come through with a stronger performance than they did last week.
And with their focus on the task at hand, he thinks they just might be up to the challenge.
"I think this week is about getting our chemistry down, and just fully coming together as a team and as a unit, and just getting out there and executing," Tucker said. "I think guys have been here long enough, and they know how the defense works, and we just have to keep that trust and believe in each other."