Their leader at safety left for the NFL. A starting cornerback followed. Their usual nickel corner was out for spring. The replacement tore a knee ligament last Tuesday. So as USC began scrimmaging on Saturday afternoon, with its secondary in somewhat rough shape, Isaiah Pola-Mao walked up from his usual perch at safety to line up in the slot, settling into his new, albeit temporary place at nickel.
There aren’t many other options at cornerback. Not after USC lost Max Williams for the year to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. Greg Johnson, who opened last season as the starting nickel, isn’t expected to return from his own knee injury until fall either. Until Saturday, USC didn’t even have its top corner, Chris Steele, due to health and safety protocols.
But the Trojans still have Pola-Mao, who was already the linchpin of the secondary even before injuries swept through the depth chart. Now, he’ll be needed at another position.
“Isaiah’s been in the system,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “He understands it, and it just helps him grow also and puts some tools in his toolbox by being so versatile.”
Pola-Mao will likely revert to safety when Johnson returns in the fall. But for now, his move to nickel will open up plenty of chances for the four safeties who signed on early to fight for playing time.
Redshirt freshman Xavion Alford, who transferred from Texas this spring, was the main beneficiary of Pola-Mao’s move on Saturday, as he slid in next to Chase Williams on the first-team defense. His experience, Helton said, was the main reason for his early opportunity.
“We’re so inexperienced, you can’t put a value on that,” Helton said. “And so to have a year under your belt as a college football player, you can see that shine through.”
The other three safeties vying for time are all early-enrolling freshmen, eager to make an impression. On Thursday, Calen Bullock did just that, intercepting two passes.
Helton described Bullock as “extremely rangy.” He characterized fellow freshman Anthony Beavers as someone with “safety athleticism but plays the game physically like a linebacker.” And he noted that Xamarion Gordon “picked up the playbook probably faster than any of the young guys.”
Alford has the clearest path to playing time of the four. But with Williams standing out, he may have to hope for Pola-Mao’s move to nickel to stay permanent, if he hopes to snag a starting job.
Pili leaves practice
Among those vying for a place in the middle of USC’s defensive line, no one had a better opportunity than Brandon Pili, whose experience as a redshirt senior made him an obvious candidate to replace Marlon Tuipulotu.
But an injury held Pili out the first week of camp. Then, on Saturday, just two practices after returning, Pili suffered what appeared to be a left ankle or knee injury. He had to be helped off the practice field, unable to put any weight on the leg.
The severity of his injury was unclear. But if Pili is forced to miss the rest of spring — or longer — it could open the door for two of the Trojans’ young tackles to secure their spot on the line.
Redshirt freshman Jamar Sekona and early enrollee Jay Toia have impressed through two weeks of spring practice. Sekona stepped in on the first-team defense when Pili went down, while Toia also saw plenty of repetitions at the position.
For Toia, it’s the first reps he’s received in nine months following the canceled California high school season. But to the pleasant surprise of USC’s coaching staff, that long layoff hasn’t affected his conditioning.
His size, meanwhile, hasn’t surprised anyone. Helton called him “a mountain of a man” with the “head of an elephant.”
“Now, he’s a guy that we were hoping could possibly contribute next year because of his physical, mental maturity,” Helton said. “You’re talking about a 300-pound man that just, you have to double-team him. If you single him, it’s a hard day. We’re very fortunate to have Jay here. It was a great competitive battle in recruiting to get him here. He has a very bright future at USC.”