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“The perfect pupil”: 49ers’ Talanoa Hufanga is learning at the foot of Troy Polamalu, his Hall of Fame idol

By Jerry Mcdonald

SANTA CLARA — Ryan Clark has heard the buzz about 49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga and watched the film with interest.

NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth invoked the name of Hall of Fame safety “Troy Polamalu” more than once during the Sunday Night Football broadcast in Denver. Charles Woodson and Richard Sherman made the comparison on Twitter, as did former 49ers defensive back and Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott on a local radio station.

Clark, an NFL analyst for ESPN, played free safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers for eight seasons, all with Polamalu at strong safety. The two are so close that when Clark flew to California this weekend to watch his son play for Arizona State against USC, he stayed at Polamalu’s home.

When the conversation turned to football Thursday night, Polamalu brought up Hufanga’s name unprompted.

“Troy’s words to me last night were, ‘He’s the perfect pupil,’ ” Clark said in a phone interview. “He does everything right. Anything you tell him that can make him better, he implements it, whether it’s the amount of sleep he gets, the amount of film he watches, the workouts he does, what he eats and the way he takes care of his body.

“Literally everything I’ve told him to do that could make him better, he’s been willing to put 100 percent effort into it.”

Comparisons between Hufanga and Polamalu were inevitable. They both have long-flowing hair and are of Polynesian descent. Hufanga is Tongan, Polamalu’s family is from American Somoa. They each went to high school in Oregon before playing collegiately at USC.

“I can’t call it a lazy comparison, because it all fits,” Clark said.

Hufanga has been mentored by Polamalu since college. The two train together in the offseason, and Polamalu offers advice and critiques after every game.

“It’s an honor for me just to be able to train with Troy,” Hufanga said. “It makes sense that I play like I do because I train with him. You try to mimic someone’s game as much as you can, and you hope to see the results. By no means am I comfortable where I’m at. I’ve got a lot of room to grow and have to continue to grind. I’m very blessed to be around him.”

Off the field, Hufanga is like Polamalu in that he’s earnest, soft-spoken and humble. But there’s a passion underneath the surface that is unleashed on game days. Hufanga’s 21 tackles are second to Dre Greenlaw (23) on the team, and he leads the 49ers in solo stops with 17, is tied with Nick Bosa with four tackles for loss and has three passes-defensed and an interception.

Not that Polamalu, inducted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2020, is delving deeply into stats with his protege.

“He critiques everything, and is a harsh critic,” Hufanga said. “He sees the game from a different perspective and he’s never really satisfied with my performances. Training with him is very different. A lot of it has to do with your mind. He’s a different cat, for sure. He not only understands the game, but what life is all about.”

Hufanga, Clark believes, is impacted by Polamalu’s sincerity.

“If you’re around Troy, you understand how passionate he is about the game,” Clark said. “Talanoa knows Troy does not need to be doing this with his life. This is not something he charges for. The respect level and the way he understands what he’s being told and who is telling him is one reason there is such a level of maturity in him.”

With Pittsburgh, Polamalu did the requisite studying of tendencies and scheme while at the same time letting his instinct and passion take over. He rarely does interviews, as is noted on his foundation website, but gave a glimpse into his soul during his Hall of Fame induction speech.

Troy Polamalu celebrates after the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the New York Jets in 2011 for the AFC Championship.

“I come from a culture where discipline, humility, and respect are not only the foundation to our survival, but the key to our existence,” Polamalu said.

Lott, another USC product, invoked the Polamalu name and raved about Hufanga’s play in an interview with KNBR.

“What’s great is that here’s a guy that looks like he’s moving faster than everyone else,” Lott said. “And what I mean by that is his anticipation of understanding the moment.”

A sixth-round draft pick, Hufanga’s big moment as a rookie was a scoop-and-score touchdown with a blocked punt in a playoff win over Green Bay. Looking back on last season, coach Kyle Shanahan said Hufanga may have been short-changed by starting only three times in 15 games.

“We should have played him a lot more last year,” Shanahan said.

DeMeco Ryans, the 49ers’ defensive coordinator, said Hufanga is serious about the mental game.

“He asks questions and I’m like, bring it on,' " Ryans said. "You want guys who want to know why. Like, ‘Why are we doing this?' instead of `I’m doing something just because the coach told me to do it.’ That’s what separates Huf and why he’s sticking out amongst everybody because he’s asking those questions.”

There’s a delicate balance between playing the position by the book and going off script as Polamalu did so often to make a play on instinct enhanced by preparation.

Source: Paradise Post