Heading into the Trojans' matchup with Arizona last week, it's safe to say that J.R. Tavai's season hadn't exactly gone as planned.
Hampered by injuries and buried on the depth chart at defensive end, the 6-foot-2 and 270-pound junior had played sparingly this fall after establishing himself as a sturdy reserve performer in 2011.
But with outside linebacker Morgan Breslin sidelined with a hip injury, the hard-nosed Manhattan Beach (Calif.) Mira Costa product found himself thrust into a starting role, with a golden opportunity lying right in front of him.
"I definitely went into that game thinking it was a chance for me to make a statement," Tavai said. "I thought about it, but I didn't get big-headed about it. I just wanted to play, and I took it play-by-play."
Tavai's even-keeled approach paid off. Showcasing a relentless, yet disciplined brand of play, he shined right from the get-go, tallying eight stops by halftime, and finishing with a stat-line that included 10 tackles, with a team-high 3.5 for loss, including one shared sack.
Those are impressive numbers for any defensive player on any night, but particularly for one who just that week had moved over to the stand-up outside linebacker position after having spent the entirety of his career at end and tackle. But Tavai -- a versatile athlete who starred on the defensive line as well as at running back in high school -- made the smoothest of transitions.
"The coaches just asked me to play the spot, and I played there ... that's how it went," said Tavai, who had compiled just two tackles on the season before USC's clash with Arizona. "I learned the position that week, and it was just about great preparation. I just put the time in practice, and then took that and put it into the game, and it worked out for the best."
Tavai, who now has four career starts and 33 tackles to his credit, admits that it hasn't been easy to stand on the sideline waiting his turn in 2013, but to his credit, his effort and determination to succeed has never waned.
"It was hard to sit and watch," Tavai said. "Being a bench warmer or whatever you want to call it, it's hard sometimes, but you've got to look up to the stars and just always keep your mindset right. Take it play-by-play, and it all starts in practice. Your time is going to come. You just have to be ready when it does."
Tavai's model work ethic caught the attention of Ed Orgeron from the moment he first stepped on campus as a freshman. And now, after Tavai came through with his most productive outing for the Trojans, the USC interim coach and defensive line guru expects him to continue to see plenty of time as a key member of the rotation on the outside, even with the return of Breslin this week.
"J.R. has been one of our better players in practice, and through injury or maybe this or that, he hasn't played much, but he is definitely going to play a bunch now," Orgeron said. "We've always known that he was one of our better players, and his time has come."
That's more than welcome news for Tavai, particularly with the Trojans set to face intersectional rival Notre Dame this Saturday. And while he has started to gain a certain amount of recognition, including being named as the USC Men's Student-Athlete of the Week on Monday, he's not about to let up now.
"Whenever you get a payday like the one I had, it's always good, but you have to want more," Tavai said. "And this week is a big game, and I do want more. My mindset is to go out and do better than I did last week."
But it won't be easy. Tavai and the rest of the USC defensive front face a significant challenge in a Notre Dame offensive line that has given up only four sacks through six games while also helping to spring a Fighting Irish ground attack that has come alive of late.
"They're really good," Tavai said. "It's going to be a test this week, but I'm excited. I can't wait to go play Notre Dame."