Safety shortage at USC presses underclassmen into action
LOS ANGELES (AP) — It’s not so much “next man up” as “last man standing” at No. 22 Southern California, with three scholarship safeties available against Texas on Saturday.
Freshman Tanaloa Hufanga and redshirt sophomore C.J. Pollard will share playing time at strong safety for the Trojans because of attrition and injury, with senior Marvell Tell III in his regular spot at free safety to fill out the three-man rotation.
“For a young person to be able to dive right into (coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s) defense and show up against Stanford, I thought him and C.J. Pollard, I can’t give them credit enough for having the opportunities to go in there and make plays,” coach Clay Helton said Wednesday night. “They’re going to have to do it again this week.”
Safety looked to be a well-stocked position for USC (1-1, 0-1 Pac-12), but that all changed over the past three weeks.
Redshirt junior Ykili Ross was competing to start at strong safety, but left the team prior to USC’s season opener against UNLV to focus on academics, with the intention of playing his final season of eligibility at another program as a graduate transfer.
Bubba Bolden was selected as the starter at strong safety, but Helton announced two days before the 43-21 win over the Rebels that the sophomore would not play for personal reasons and there was no timetable for his return.
Redshirt freshman Isaiah Pola-Mao started against UNLV and No. 9 Stanford, but sustained a shoulder injury in the first half of the 17-3 loss at the Cardinal that will sideline him for several weeks.
The injury to Pola-Mao forced Hufanga and Pollard to step in, with Tell playing all 57 snaps on defense while the two underclassmen combined to make five tackles with 1½ tackles for loss.
“It’s been tough cause those are my guys, those are my teammates,” Hufanga said. “It’s an opportunity for me to come up. At the same time, it’s hard cause these are guys that we worked hard (with). We worked in the spring, we worked in the summer, we all were grinding together.”
Hufanga, who participated in spring practice after graduating early from Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis, Ore., credits Tell as a catalyst for his quick adjustment to college football.
The three-year starter helped Hufanga learn the defense, explaining all aspects of it on the practice field, in meetings and while reviewing film. Likely to make his first start against the Longhorns (1-1), Hufanga is glad Tell will be there to continue that line of communication.
“Since I’ve been here, he’s been a real good role model to me,” Hufanga said. “He’s helped me, mentored me. For me just to finally get in that spot where he’s really there and right next, side by side, it’s a lot different.”
Pollard sees himself as a more of a natural box safety best suited to defend the run in the role currently held by Tell, but his ability to play in space earned solid marks against Stanford. Pollard hopes that a solid week of practice with the knowledge he will play against Texas will allow him to be even better this week.
“I didn’t grade out the best I could have graded out,” Pollard said. “It was a 90, and until I’m 100 then it’s not good enough.”
But with such limited numbers available, USC cannot be picky about the performance of its safeties, even as it puts other contingency plans in place. Freshman cornerback Chase Williams is working at safety, and Helton said, “he’s catching up fast.”
Until Williams is ready to contribute and Pola-Mao is healthy, Pollard hopes the current trio of safeties can catch a break and stay on the field.
“Hey, stay ready because you never know what can happen next,” Pollard said. “Hopefully I don’t get an injury. Hopefully Talanoa doesn’t get an injury or Marvell gets an injury at this point.”
NOTES: RT Chuma Edoga (illness) did not practice because of what Helton called a “stomach bug.” Helton does expect Edoga to be available to practice Thursday.