Phoenix (Ariz.) Mountain Pointe four-star safety Isaiah Pola-Mao exemplifies what USC is looking for in its defensive secondary under defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
A year ago, Clay Helton was hired by USC as the permanent head coach of the Trojans football team. Helton immediately made it known on the recruiting trail that USC wanted to get bigger and more physical.
Linemen became a focal point for USC — both in quality and quantity. But Pendergast had his own vision of making USC a more physical team on the defensive side of the football. In addition to beefing up his front seven, Pendergast began recruiting for length in the defensive secondary.
At one point, USC had offered scholarships to 25 defensive backs in the class of 2017 who were 6-foot-1 or taller. Many of the safeties the Trojans targeted were 6-foot-2 or taller. The two safeties they have committed are 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-4.
Pola-Mao started off his recruitment as a potential wide receiver prospect. As a junior, he had 23 receptions for 435 yards and five scores. As a senior, Pola-Mao had 28 receptions for 650-yards and nine touchdowns.
So while USC searched the country for big, tall, rangy defensive back prospect this recruiting cycle, Pola-Mao proved to be more than a slight linebacker posing as a safety. That was never more evident than at The Opening Finals where Pola-Mao had three interceptions in his first three games in 7-on-7 pool play. One of those interceptions was run back for a touchdown.
Like a condor swooping across canyon peak to canyon peak, Pola-Mao used his long arms and laser timed 4.56 40-yard dash times speed to swipe at passes all over the field. Last season, Pola-Mao backed up his Opening Finals performance with 100 tackles and 10 interceptions. Showing off his speed in the open field, he brought three of those interceptions back for touchdowns.
USC loses starting safety Leon McQuay to graduation in 2017. They could potentially lose former walk-on junior safety Matt Lopes to graduation as well. Junior safety Marvell Tell and senior safety Chris Hawkins both return with starting experience from last season.
Expert opinion with Scout Mountain Regional Analysts Blair Angulo
Having covered Isaiah Pola-Mao’s recruitment since his sophomore year, Blair Angulo has watched the potential wide receiver prospect blossom into the nation’s No. 14 safety.
“First time I saw him in pads with the past season,” said Angulo. “His team took a bus ride out to play Upland. Isaiah was playing as a single high free safety, basically, center hash marks.
“There was a pass in that game where he read the quarterback, broke to the sideline, laid out the receiver and still came up with the interception. It was just a phenomenal play. That was the day when I realized he was going to be a really good safety at the next level.
“At that time we had him rated as an athlete, and a lot of schools were looking at him as a reliever as well. He had a good year stretching the field and being a possession guy when his team needed a first down. He was really pivotal to his team’s offense.
“But when I saw him in person, his ability to make plays on the ball really strikes you. He’s very comfortable being back there on an island, but also when he has to get upfield to meet the ball carrier.”
Pola-Mao will join Las Vegas (Nev.) Bishop Gorman four-star safety Bubba Bolden was one of the nation’s best incoming freshman safety duos.
“I think Isaiah is definitely in the conversation for playing time at USC next season,” said Angulo. “I think that was a big selling point for USC. Speaking to him after his visit, Isaiah learned a lot from that trip. He learned that USC would be a legitimate option for him to play right away.
“That was a big selling point for him with ASU. That and he could stay close to home. There may have been a misconception that USC had all of these guys that would play ahead of him. But USC uses some three safety personnel and they utilize different types of safeties in their defense.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he played as a freshman. Bubba is a little ahead of him because he has played against the top teams in the country and dominated against that competition. He’s a little more developed and technically refined in that respect.
“That’s not to knock Isaiah. He was really good at The Opening. He was hurt at the Under Armour game and the Poly Bowl, but watching him against a top team from Southern California, he was the best player on the field. There’s no doubt he can play if everything comes together for him this summer from a fundamentals standpoint.”
Having seen both Pola-Mao and Bolden play this past season, Angulo contrasted and compared each prospect.
“They are similar in frame because they both have some length to them, but they’re different players,” said Angulo. “Bubba is an instinctual defensive back who gets to his spot early and will make a play on the ball.
“Isaiah Pola-Mao is a guy that reads and reacts. He’ll see a receiver go deep and break on that spot. From a length standpoint, we talked about Bubba, but I think Isaiah is still growing. Because of that, his position is still a little bit undetermined. Right now he is a very good safety, who can be that plug at the back end of the secondary.
“There’s no question that if he puts on some more weight he can be an in-the-box safety or even an outside linebacker. His upside is unknown because we don’t know how much weight he’ll add. Bubba Bolden is the no. 1 safety in the region, but Isaiah isn’t too far behind.”
As noted, USC continues to get bigger in the defensive backfield. It’s a personnel philosophy which goes against the recruiting paradigm of the PAC-12.
“You look at Oregon, Washington, Utah and Arizona State… those schools are trying to get smaller at safety,” said Angulo. “They’re trying to compensate for all of the speed the spread offenses have in the conference.
“They’re going with that smaller safety to cover the two slot receivers. But Clancy might be onto something. You could see by midseason, having a couple of taller, bigger safeties on the field at the same time created problems for those offenses. Not only in run support, but they limited plays down field too.
“USC did a good job of keeping the ball in front of them, and these two safeties are top of the line at going down hill. Both are a little thin right now, but they still can pack a punch. They both can tackle well and don’t hesitate to hit.”