Continuing the flurry of signings for the USC Trojans on National Signing Day, four-star safety Isaiah Pola-Mao recently announced his intentions to become a Trojan. Rated as the 15th best safety and 116th best player in the nation according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, Pola-Mao is expected to become an impact defensive player.
In addition to his strong performances for Mountain Pointe High School in Arizona, Pola-Mao also has fantastic football bloodlines as a relative of former Trojan great Troy Polamalu. If Pola-Mao can come anywhere close to what Polamalu achieved in cardinal and gold, he will be the next success story in a line of Polynesian players at SC.
Pola-Mao’s greatest asset is his physicality. Listed at 6’4” 190 lbs., Pola-Mao has an imposing frame to go along with his 4.60 40 yard dash speed. When analyzing the Under Armour All-American’s game, perhaps the closest player comparison is fellow USC commit Bubba Bolden. Both players are tall for the safety position and play with a mean streak. Each are not afraid to make a huge hit against receivers attempting to make a catch over the middle of the field, and both have the frame to add more weight in college.
Pola-Mao is a very similar player to Bolden and their overlapping skillsets could see one move to linebacker. If that were to be the case, Pola-Mao is probably the more likely of the two to make the move. He is two inches taller than Bolden and from watching their tape, Bolden appears to be a little bit faster. Speed is not everything at safety where anticipation can play an even bigger role, but Bolden’s superior athleticism should allow him to stick in the secondary.
Pola-Mao, on the other hand, is a little more physical than Bolden (splitting hairs between the two) and is never afraid to come down into the box against the run. Especially when considering that Pola-Mao is a pretty lanky player for his size, it is easy to project him as an effective linebacker if he can add 20-30 pounds.
Pola-Mao’s primary role for his high school team on defense was to operate as a sort of “center fielder.” In this position, he was responsible for helping out over the top on deep routes, and breaking up passes over the middle. Rarely was he tasked with matching up on a tight end or running back in man coverage as he would likely have to do for the Trojans. The inexperience in this area could certainly hold Pola-Mao back early in his career, particularly if the coaching staff decides to keep him at safety. If he moves to linebacker, Pola-Mao would also need to improve in man coverage as the two spots require a relatively similar skillset, but he should be immediately effective in zone coverage as the footwork and reading of the quarterback are relatively similar between the two roles.
Although it may be a better short-term fit for his current abilities, it is far from a guarantee that Pola-Mao will move to linebacker. Safeties are not expected to be the fastest players on the field, and 4.6 speed is certainly passable for a player his size. Plus, it is realistic that Pola-Mao could add 10-15 pounds of good weight without losing any agility. If this were to happen, he would become almost the ideal player for the safety position (assuming he can develop the necessary skills in coverage).
Regardless of whether or not Pola-Mao switches positions, it is unlikely that he sees much playing time as a true freshman. Clancy Pendergrast does like to use three safeties in nickel packages, but Marvell Tell, Chris Hawkins, Ykili Ross, John Plattenburg, Jamel Cook, and C.J. Pollard all have the upper hand in the competition for playing time. Especially considering that the Trojans are also bringing in another talented safety in Bubba Bolden, Pola-Mao’s outlook for early playing time grows only more bleak. As a result, Pola-Mao will most likely spend his first season with the scout team as he develops his man coverage skills and continues to add good weight to his imposing frame.
Even if Pola-Mao were to move to linebacker, his chances of earning a spot in the rotation are not good. At only 190 pounds, Pola-Mao would easily be the lightest linebacker on the roster. The Trojans do have some depth issues at inside linebacker, but the odds of Pola-Mao playing early in his career at that position are extremely unlikely at best. If this position change were to be made, Pola-Mao would most likely spend at least a year or two in the program building up his size and strength before earning reps in a game situation.
Even though Pola-Mao is unlikely to be an early contributor, he still has the potential to be a difference maker for SC. His physicality and ability to impact a game both through the air and on the ground are rare qualities for 6’4” safeties. Plus, even if he does not contribute on defense in his first couple seasons, his mentality would be perfect on special teams. Either way, Pola-Mao is a talented football player who should grow into an impact defensive player over the course of his Trojan career.