It seems like it might be difficult for the safety position at USC to take a step forward this season, one year after Talanoa Hufanga turned in an All-American season and one of the greatest statistical six-game performances at that position in USC history. But that’s part of the challenge Isaiah Pola-Mao set for himself when he elected to return to USC rather than declare for the 2021 NFL Draft, and it’s absolutely what position coach Craig Naivar has in mind for the group.
Pola-Mao was USC’s lone captain on the defensive side of the ball last season, as he finished third on the team with 40 tackles and led the way with five pass deflections and three fumble recoveries in just six games. The veteran said that in his deliberations about whether to make himself available for the draft or to return to school, there were several factors that led him back to USC.
“I knew in my heart I could have done better with more games last year,” Pola-Mao said. “So I felt like with one ore year, I could solidify myself.”
Pola-Mao said there are specific areas where he’s looking to take that step forward this season, based on looking back at the 2020 season and the feedback he got regarding eventually moving forward with his professional career.
“I think my overall playmaking ability needs to be up,” Pola-Mao said. “I think I can make more plays than I did last year. I want to clear up some concerns that other teams and scouts have about me. I know I need to fix my open-field tackling and clean little things like that up, focus on my technique. I think I can make a bigger leap this year.”
For safeties coach Craig Naivar, getting Pola-Mao back is a big plus.
“He’s a returning captain, which is huge for our entire football team,” Naivar said. “He brings game experience, leadership, and it goes without saying that if you lose him and Talanoa, you take a huge hit. He’s a calming voice back there, a veteran, and he knows the defense inside and out. When the guys on the field hear his voice, they have that assurance and trust.”
Pola-Mao said that leadership role has always come naturally.
“I believe I’ve always been that person to try to bring everybody else together and be the guy,” he said. “When I first started out, it was all about my confidence and how comfortable I was. That just grew each year that I was with everybody. You’re a vet now, so you have the responsibility whether you like it or not. I’ve accepted it and learned to love it.”
But even with the standout season from Hufanga, improved play from Pola-Mao and the quick adjustment the safeties appeared to make to Todd Orlando’s defensive scheme despite missing virtually all of spring ball and having to work through the installation over video calls, there is a sense that repeating the same performance won’t be nearly enough in 2021.
Naivar said the group was “opportunistic at times” last season, but there is still room for growth, and a need to get it done quickly. A huge baseball fan, Naivar often uses analogies from that sport to get his point across. As the USC safeties coach, it’s appropriate that he would step into the shoes of a hitting coach.
“When we are given the opportunity to make a big-time play, what is the batting average on that?” Naivar said, referencing part of how he grades the position after each game. “What did you do with that high fastball? Did you foul it off? You’re probably not going to see it again the rest of the at-bat. Or did you drive it into left-center field? We did not, in my opinion, make enough plays when we had the opportunity to make some game-changing plays. Did we flash and do some things? Yes. But we have to play with a better consistency and we have to have the opportunity to make drive-altering or game-altering plays…Statistics and numbers are, I guess, better. But from the standard that we set for ourselves, we’re nowhere close to where we want to be.”
Despite the odd year that was the 2020 football season and everything leading up to it, Pola-Mao got a good sense of the safety position in this defense and with a year under his belt now, is looking forward to unleashing his full potential.
“I love it,” Pola-Mao said of playing safety for Orlando and Naivar. “It revolves around us, really. We make all the calls, we make sure everybody is lined up and ready to go. Even when it comes to blitzing, we’re always around it. It’s what you want to play in when you’re a defensive player. It’s an attacking, aggressive defense and I love that style.”
Hufanga averaged one forced turnover per game last season (four interceptions and two forced fumbles) as well as half a sack (three total, and 2.5 more tackles for loss).
“I’m going to have more responsibility on my shoulders to make those type of plays, but I accept that challenge,” Pola-Mao said. “I love that. They’re going to put me in positions to make plays and it’s up to me to make those.”
Pola-Mao has steadily improved each season at USC, and credits his growing understanding of the position, the scheme and the sport to slowing things down for him on the field game by game.
The safety position is an interesting one heading into this season. This defense relies on three safeties almost at all times, so the nickelbacks have been mostly absorbed into that group, meaning Greg Johnson and Max Williams are part of the position. But overall, the numbers there are far from where Naivar would like them, as the Trojans had both Jayden Williams and Dorian Hewett (safeties signed in the 2019 class) kick out to cornerback and USC did not sign a single defensive back in the 2020 class. Pola-Mao said he has a lot of faith in Chase Williams’ ability to potentially step into a starting role alongside him. Briton Allen and Kalauna Makaula return for their third seasons this year, and USC has four new safeties joining the program for spring ball, as prep signees Anthony Beavers, Xamarion Gordon and Calen Bullock are joined by Texas transfer Xavion Alford.
That means competition at the position can kick up a notch, as numbers start to fill the depth chart a bit more.
“One guy goes down, it’s the next guy up,” Pola-Mao said. “As a safety group, we have a lot of young dudes that are hungry out here and trying to work their butts off. I’m really excited to see how spring ball goes.”
That starts with the offseason conditioning program the team is going through right now. Naivar said the entire team in general and the safety position in general have aggressively attacked the offseason conditioning and weight training, after one of the huge hurdles last season was the fact that the players were kept out of the weight room and away from the traditional strength and conditioning program for so long.
“That physical development, which we sorely needed, was tough on the kids,” Naivar said of missing so much time last year. “They did the best they could with it, but we’re embracing this time right now because of the time we get to spend in the weight room and the conditioning and the mat drills and all that stuff. Our young men really need it and they’re really drawn to it right now from not being around it so much.
“We’ll rotate a lot of guys and move a lot,” Naivar said of the plan to find the right fits at the safety positions for this season. “It’s to be earned, and that’s a big part right now, earning the right to be out there. That’s accountability, conditioning, mat drills. Those aren’t just something you do in the offseason to check a box and say you did it. You’re building a resume for the right to do that and it’ll be a great battle.”
It’s clear that physical advancement in both strength and speed is paramount for the Trojans this offseason. Pola-Mao said there was been complete buy in to the new strength and conditioning staff, led by Robert Stiner.
“I think it’s a sense of pride around here,” Pola-Mao said. “Our new strength and conditioning coaches came in and it was no joking around. It was straight to business. Nobody has really said anything about it. It’s just been, alright, let’s get to it. It’s time to work. We all have that same feeling. It’s a sense of pride and a standard that we hold everybody to around here. We just get to work and it’s no lollygagging. Once you step in the building, it’s time to go to work. We’re working to become champions.”
Naivar said a large part of Pola-Mao’s final development at USC is physical, and added that he’ll have an opportunity to attack that in the weight room this offseason. He also added that a huge point of emphasis on defense since the time the defensive staff arrived in 2020 has been improving the overall speed on that side of the ball. He said it was the No. 1 thing they saw when watching tape and in workouts early on.
“We felt like that was lacking where we needed to be, to be elite,” Naivar said.
He said the early enrollees have especially taken to it, as they didn’t get a senior football season this past fall.
“They’ve been extremely eager since they’ve walked on campus, not just with the football side of it, but the classroom aspect of it,” Naivar said. “The distance they had from it in the fall has made them love and embrace this opportunity, which is really cool to see.”
All the safeties learn all of the different positions in the back end under Naivar, who said the ability to multi-task makes them better players both in college and in the NFL.
“That also lends to teaching what are the strengths and weaknesses of a defense,” he said. “At first, it’s drinking water from a firehose. But after a couple weeks, that subsides and they really have a better understanding of what we’re doing. Rather than just memorizing their job, they’re understanding the what and the why.”
Naivar said his job in part is to get the individual players ready to perform in any situation Orlando puts them in, and to give USC’s defensive coordinator as many options as possible this fall. Last season, Hufanga was asked to do so many different things, but finding a one-to-one replacement or a safety who can specifically fill that opening isn’t exactly a necessity for this coming season.
“How does coach Orlando use his chess pieces to play to our strength and cover our weaknesses?” Naivar said when asked how the Trojans could replace Hufanga’s production and impact. “That’s the great thing about this defensive package is it is extremely multiple to where you can put your playmakers in situations to make plays. It’s not a cookie cutter deal where it’s just quarters or just one-high or just basic stuff where you’re trying to force fit a guy into something. He has a lot of options to use other young men that are maybe further along in their development and what they’re ready for. We truly can rely on the other guys out there. And to be fair to the other 10 men on the field, a lot of Talanoa’s plays were created by what other young men did. I don’t think you fully replace him, but I also don’t think there’s a gaping hole where it’s like we’re going to play with 10 next year because he’s not here.”
USC’s defense not only loses Hufanga from last year, the Trojans will also be without cornerback Olaijah Griffin and defensive tackles Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu. Tufele sat out last season, but Tuipulotu and Griffin were big parts of USC’s defensive plan in 2020. USC returns 10 of its top 13 tacklers last season, and will have a complete offseason with this defensive staff.
“I think this was kind of like a preview of what we could be,” Pola-Mao said of how he views the shortened 2020 season, looking back. “It obviously didn’t end well, but it showed a lot of guys that we have what it takes. We’re not just all about the talk. We can really do what we talk about doing — going undefeated and winning championships and taking USC back to where it belongs. I think last year was definitely a sign that we could do this.”