USC football progress report: It’s finally coming together for Isaiah Pola-Mao

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

After beating his injury history, Isaiah Pola-Mao became one of USC football’s most reliable players. Can he be a star in 2020?

USC football’s defense comes into 2020 with something to prove after a troubling 2019 campaign.

Even so, there is warranted optimism on that side of the ball in part because of the many promising players returning. Isaiah Pola-Mao is one of them.

The redshirt junior safety is the latest player Reign of Troy is examining ahead of the new season, with an eye on what they’ve been and what they could become…

What USC got as a recruit:

Pola-Mao was one of two elite safety prospects USC added in the class of 2017, but he’s the only one still on the Trojans roster. Coming out of Phoenix, he ranked 113th nationally in the 247Sports composite and 15th among safeties.

As a relative of Troy Polamalu, his pedigree was particularly noteful for the Trojans, along with being well-regarded for his length at 6-foot-4.

What he’s accomplished:

Pola-Mao has managed to start just one season in three years with the USC football program, because of a series of misfortunes.

He was well on his way to competing as a true freshman, when his season was derailed by a fall camp shoulder injury. He had to undergo surgery and redshirted, returning in 2018 with fresh hopes of grabbing a starting role.

Indeed, the opportunity arrived quickly, as USC’s safety depth took a serious hit before the season. Pola-Mao’s debut was undoubtedly bright as he forced a fumble on the opening play against UNLV and led the team with seven tackles. Unfortunately, his first tackle against Stanford in Week 2 led to another season-ending shoulder injury.

The third time was a charm for Pola-Mao, who made it through the 2019 offseason without any setbacks. He came in as a starter and left as one through 12 of 13 games, missing the first half against ASU because of a targeting ejection. In that time, he amassed a team-high four interceptions and 73 tackles, with 5.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.

What to expect in 2020:

It was great to finally see Pola-Mao healthy after so many false starts to his career. It’ll be even better if he can take a step up from where he was as a first-time starter.

Todd Orlando has a decent record utilizing safeties in his defense. DeShon Elliott was an All-American in 2017 while Caden Sterns was the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year.

Talanoa Hufanga holds the starring role in USC’s secondary going into the season. Pola-Mao may not be able to surpass him in that, but he should at least shoot for All-Pac-12 honors now that he’s settled in. A 6-foot-4, 205-pound athlete like Pola-Mao has all the tools to make some waves in the conference.

Where he goes from here:

Pola-Mao will be eligible to leave for the NFL draft after the 2020 season. Making that jump would likely mean he put in a strong redshirt junior campaign, garnering conference honors and establishing himself as a critical figure in a much-improved defense.

Anything less than that simply doesn’t seem plausible to justify a departure.

When he does land in the NFL draft pool, Pola-Mao will have size and athleticism on his side. His early USC injury record could be a sticking point for teams.

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