COSTA MESA — Chargers coach Brandon Staley’s first impressions of outside linebacker Tuli Tuipulotu haven’t changed since their first pre-draft meeting. Eight games into his NFL career Tuipulotu remains the same person he was when the team selected him in the second round in April.
“Same look in his eye,” Staley said. “Same amount of words. He’s just really serious. Really easy to talk to. All ball. Total focus. He has the composure of a much (older person). He was only 20 when we first met him. … He means business. He’s a great kid. … That’s how he came off.”
Tuipulotu, now 21, isn’t the same player he was upon leaving USC for the draft. How could he be? No question, he was a standout with the Trojans, named a consensus All-America and the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year after finishing third in the country with 12½ sacks.
But the speed and the experience and the general excellence of NFL players has brought out the best in Tuipulotu, and he’s met or exceeded expectations so far. He’s had four sacks, including two in the Chargers’ victory over the New York Jets on Monday night, and 20 solo tackles in eight games.
Success, such as it has been in his burgeoning career, hasn’t altered Tuipulotu in the least. He remains shy in many ways, reserved, willing to defer to older, more experienced and more accomplished teammates such as fellow pass rushers Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack, two multiple Pro Bowl selections.
During spring practices and training camp, Tuipulotu addressed Bosa and Mack as “Sir,” although Bosa and Mack each say he’s stopped the practice. He even has nicknames for Bosa, 28, and Mack, 32. Tuipulotu calls Bosa “Joey B” or “Joey Beeskie.” Mack is “K-Mack” or simply “K.”
Tuipulotu even says “Hi” to quarterback Justin Herbert when he passes him in the hallway, drawing laughter from reporters at the retelling, but he also admitted, “I’m still kind of scared to talk to Justin. I don’t know. It’s just ‘J-Herbo.’ I’m weird like that. It took me a while to talk to ‘K’ and Joey. I’m just weird.”
It’s all about giving proper respect, Tuipulotu said.
“Tuli is a funny guy,” Mack said. “Some of the stuff he says, I’m shocked by it just as much as y’all. He was a little quiet coming in, sitting by himself, but he’s become more comfortable with us. It just speaks to the group we have, a lot of guys that you could say are high-level players and stars on the football field, but we’re all brothers when it comes to the locker room.”
At first, Tuipulotu sat in the corner at weekly dinners arranged and hosted by Mack for the Chargers’ defensive unit. He came out of his shell and gradually joined the conversation, although he acknowledged that Mack and defensive linemen Morgan Fox and Nick Williams are “the life of the dinner.”
“They’re always having fun,” Tuipulotu said.
The dinners have accomplished something else, too.
“Camaraderie,” Tuipulotu said. “It builds a lot of relationships. I’ve talked to a lot of people that I wouldn’t normally, just because I’m not in their room and I’m not really good at talking to people like that. It’s a great thing, building connections. I’m grateful for ‘K-Mack’ for having those team dinners weekly. It’s great for us, for sure.”
Tuipulotu’s play has given others something to talk about, too. It would be one thing if he was a shy, reserved person who accomplished little of note on the practice field or during games, but he’s been an excellent depth player behind Bosa and Mack, giving the Chargers an effective pass rush.
For instance, the Chargers sacked Jets quarterback Zach Wilson eight times, forcing him to fumble twice during a 27-6 victory that was sparked by their defense. Bosa had 2½ sacks, Mack and Tuipulotu each had two sacks, safety Dean Marlowe had one and Fox had a half sack.
It’s on the field that Tuipulotu reveals a different side of himself, a part rooted in his family’s ancestral home on the South Pacific island of Tonga.
“I just scream, ‘Tongans,’ a lot,” Tuipulotu said of his reaction after sacking a quarterback. “That’s my culture. I scream it a lot. I think, after the sacks (Monday), I kept screaming, ‘Tongans, Tongans, Tongans.’ When I’m on the field, I’m a whole different person, for sure. I kind of just turn the switch on.
“Outside of it, I’m kind of like this.”
Reserved. Relaxed. Respectful.
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