NFL Draft

2022 NFL Draft Player Profiles: USC S Isaiah Pola-Mao

From now until the 2022 NFL Draft takes place, we hope to scout and create profiles for as many prospects as possible, examining their strengths, weaknesses, and what they can bring to an NFL franchise. These players could be potential top 10 picks, all the way down to Day 3 selections and priority undrafted free agents. Today, I’ll be profiling a safety prospect that has been a team captain for a tradition-rich Power 5 tam and has the NFL bloodlines you search for yet has flown completely under-the-radar throughout the pre-draft process.

#21 Isaiah Pola-Mao, S, USC (R-Senior) – 6034, 212lb


Player Ht/Wt Hand Size Arm Length Wingspan
Isaiah Pola-Mao 6’3 3/4”, 212lb 8 1/2” 32 1/2” 76 1/2”
40-Yard Dash 10-Yard Dash Short Shuttle 3-Cone
4.51 1.58 4.34 6.87
Broad Jump Vertical Bench Press
10’06” 31.0” N/A

*All Values from Pro Day

The Good

— Has good open field speed and is a fluid mover from side-to-side and in a backpedal
— Possesses great length and height for the position
— Uses his frame along with his instincts to display a lot of range as a deep safety
— Has shown positional versatility, playing single-high safety, in the box, in the nickel, and on the LOS occasionally as a blitzer
— Flows to the football well in both coverage and in run support
— Physical, violent tackler that shows great pursuit of the football
— Will break down and chop his feet to square up his target as a tackler
— Diagnoses the play well pre-snap to be in position against the run or in coverage
— Makes calls and vocalizes what he sees to the rest of the defense
— Recognizes route patterns and breaks on the ball to challenge at the catch point
— Has shown the ability to take the football away, having led the Pac-12 Conference as a sophomore with four INTs
— Has experience playing man coverage against backs and TEs and has dabbled with playing in the nickel
— Has the traits and play style to be good special teams player

The Bad

— Lacks ideal suddenness or quick twitch ability to change direction in short spaces
— Angles of pursuit can be improved upon for better positioning when making that tackle
— Can fly in too fast as a tackler at times causing some missed attempts rather than wrapping up effectively
— Eyes can get caught in the backfield at times in coverage, leading to receivers getting on top of him
— Ball production dropped off this past season compared to early years
— Long, slender build doesn’t give confidence to durability at the next level
— History of shoulder injuries are concerning for a defensive back


— Redshirt Senior prospect from Phoenix, AZ
— Former four-star recruit and nephew to former Steeler great Troy Polamalu
— His father, Tracey, played football at San Diego State and with the Arena League’s Arizona Rattlers
— His great uncle is former USC fullback and current assistant coach Kennedy Polamalu
— Also was on Mountain Pointe’s basketball and track, placing fourth in the long jump in a personal-best 22-7.25 at the 2016 Division I state championship
— Redshirted his first year on campus after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in fall camp
— Played and started two games as a redshirt freshman, seeing action in two games and recorded eight total tackles (four solo), and one forced fumble
— Dislocated his left shoulder in the second game at Stanford and had season-ending surgery
— Started 12 games of 13 games played at free safety in 2019 and notched 73 total tackles (45 solo), 5.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, two PBUs, and four INTs as a sophomore
— Recorded 40 total tackles, five PBUs, and one INT in six games played and started as a junior in 2020
— Started for his third season at free safety as a senior in 2021, appeared in 11 games and started nine times and had 57 tackles (41 solo), one TFL, a fumble recovery, and a deflection
— Co-Captain in 2021, team captain in 2020
— 2020 All-Pac-12 honorable mention, AP All-Pac-12 second team (2020)

Tape Breakdown

Isaiah Pola-Mao from USC is a long, athletic defensive back that has the versatility along with the size to make him an intriguing prospect in this year’s safety draft class. The guy has great genes, having a father who played college and professional football in the arena league as well as a great uncle and uncle who also stared for the Trojans, the latter being so-to-be Hall of Fame inductee Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Troy was recognized more as a strong safety whereas Pola-Mao is technically listed as a free safety but has played all over the defense for the Trojans. Both players play the game with a reckless abandonment, showing great pursuit of the football whether it be in run support or in pass coverage. Here is one example of Pola-Mao rolling down to the LOS lining up on the right edge of the defense and sniffs out the reverse by the receiver coming into the backfield, being able to sift through the trash and make a play far into the backfield for a big loss on the play.


Pola-Mao displays great pursuit of the football as a defensive back and looks to drive through the ballcarrier on contact. We see an example of that here against Washington State as he tracks down #21 Max Borghi on the outside run, driving his shoulder through the ballcarrier and takes him out of bounds.


Despite being slender of frame for his given height, Pola-Mao brings it as a run defender. He has no quarrels sticking his nose into the fire amongst the scrum at the LOS and will try his hardest to work around or through blocks. Here is a good example against the Cougars where Pola-Mao lines up as a sub package linebacker on fourth down and starts his pursuit of the ball on the snap. He is immediately covered up by the tackle but continues to fight across the blocker’s face to the sideline to meet the runner right in front of the goal line where Pola-Mao stifles him and prevents him from getting in for the score.


Pola-Mao is a versatile defender that can line up in a variety of different spots for the defense, which also includes deep safety in center field due to his length and ability to run in the open field. He covers ground se well on the backend, getting to his spot in a hurry to make a play. Watch this rep where Pola-Mao flows to the football on the jet sweep to the left. He comes down from center field to the sideline, taking a good angle of pursuit to the ball carrier and knocks him out of bounds on the big hit, showing off his range to get to the ball as a run defender, closing ground in a hurry to make a play.


This same range on the backend of the defense is showcased in his ability to impact the pass as well, breaking on the ball once he reads the QB’s intentions with the football and gets to the receiver along the boundary in a short amount of time to help out the CB by either breaking up the intended pass or taking it away completely. Here are a couple of clips showing off Pola-Mao’s range in coverage where he gets to the football on-time and picks off the pass.


On this play, we see eerily similar traces of instinctive play reminiscent of his uncle who wore the Black and Gold. Pola-Mao lines up detached from the LOS almost in a dime backer role. He reads the option between the QB and RB, keeping his eyes on the QB as he decides to keep the ball and throw it on the RPO. Pola-Mao gets his hands up into the passing lane over the middle on the quick slant look, batting the ball into the air and converts on the diving INT to the ground, getting the big turnover in the opponent’s territory.


Still, there are some negatives to Pola-Mao’s game that need to be addressed as well. While he is a willing tackler, there are instances where he may come in too fast and fail to break down, thus leading to diving arm tackle attempts. Now, Pola-Mao has been able to make some of these plays out in space, but other times this results in him whiffing on the tackle entirely like we see on this rep against Utah. Pola-Mao also has a long history of shoulder injuries, having two season-ending surgeries due to his aggressive play. Given his svelte frame and lack of mass, as well as his previous injuries, Pola-Mao may struggle with durability concerns at the next level.


While Pola-Mao normally plays with good instincts in coverage and moves well on the backend of the defense, there are several occasions on tape where he gets his eyes caught in the backfield watching the QB, pausing his movement, which ultimately allows receivers to get on top of him vertically when he has responsibility to play “deep is deep”. Here is one clear example against the Utes where Pola-Mao starts to creep forward on the snap, seeing the handoff to the back, but fails to recognize the flea flicker back to the QB. The receiver wins down the seam where Pola-Mao is supposed to provide help to the CB, who ultimately gets burned on the long TD pass into the end zone.



Overall, Isaiah Pola-Mao is a long, yet slender safety that his shown the propensity to wear a lot of hats for a defense. He is a willing tackler that also has showcased the ability to play well in coverage both near the LOS as well as a center fielder. He started out his Trojan career as a ballhawk, routinely making plays on the football. However, those plays have dropped off in recent years, causing his draft stock to fall. Given the lack of ball production, inconsistencies with instincts, and durability concerns, Pola-Mao isn’t garnering the same interest as before despite still showcasing the ability to be a productive contributing member for a defense if healthy.

When looking for a pro comparison for Pola-Mao, my mind went right to another long, athletic specimen at the position: Dallas Cowboys S Jayron Kearse. Kearse was highly touted at the beginning of his career at Clemson, being a force as a run defender as well as a ballhawk standing at 6’4, 216lb. Still, Kearse saw his production drop off his final season in Death Valley, much like Pola-Mao, combining with his poor testing speed (4.62 40) to drop him to the seventh round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He started he career with the Vikings as a backup and core special teams player but worked his way into a spot starter and eventually became a full-time starter with Dallas last season.

Given the similar measurables, versatile skill set, and early breakout with a down final season, I foresee Pola-Mao following a similar journey as Kearse, as he likely will be selected later on Day Three of the draft and have to cut his teeth as a special teams ace and show teams that he has the ability to be a contributing member on the defense as a guy that can play either free or strong safety. While Pola-Mao didn’t mention being in contact with the Pittsburgh Steelers in an interview following his Pro Day, he still could be a guy that could take notice in near the end of the draft if available.

He could come in and serve as depth at either safety spot while playing for Danny Smith on special teams, hopefully earning a contributing role on defense down the line. The bloodlines may help in Pola-Mao’s favor, but should Pittsburgh look to address safety early on in the draft as many expect the likelihood that Pola-Mao ends up in Black and Gold may be slim.

Projection: Mid to Late Day Three

Depot Draft Grade: 7.2- Raw Traits/Upside Prospect (4th Round)

Games Watched: at Washington State (2021), vs Utah (2021), at UCLA (2020), vs Oregon (2019), vs Utah (2019)


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