USC safeties embrace new role as ‘quarterbacks of the defense’

Even under the old USC defensive scheme, safeties were vital playmakers for the Trojans. Last season alone, Talanoa Hufanga finished second on the team with 90 tackles, despite missing three games, and Isaiah Pola-Mao finished third with 73 takedowns.

But under new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, safeties like Hufanga and Pola-Mao will take on a new role, one their position coach describes as “the quarterbacks of the defense.”

Safeties in the new scheme will be tasked with relaying plays from the sidelines and putting their teammates in the right spots before the snap. It’s not the most natural job for players like Hufanga and Pola-Mao, who are known as leaders by example instead of being vocal in the locker room or field.

But both are embracing this new role. It’s not necessarily new for Hufanga, who actually played quarterback in high school. And both recognize the importance of the job.

“On the field, you’re going to be vocal. I think that’s regardless of being a quiet guy, or a loud guy,” Hufanga said. “For me, I think it’s going to be the same. I want to lead and help guys, whether I’m in a vocal role or not.”

“When everybody’s on the same page, we play so much faster and better,” Pola-Mao explained. “I can definitely be more vocal, but I like to sit back and listen. I’ll speak when I need to speak.”

Learning a defense is usually a hands-on process. Safeties coach Craig Naivar said at his introductory press conference in March he wouldn’t know the caliber players he had until he saw them in pads.

So the process of installing the defense virtually, rather than during the spring football season wiped out by the coronaviurus pandemic, has been frustrating. But they are finding ways to learn regardless of the setting.

With the tape of only one spring practice available for use, Naivar has had to get creative with the film he shows his position group during Zoom meetings. He’ll show game footage from his and Orlando’s previous stops at Texas and Houston to show their defense in action.

And sometimes he’ll pull film from NFL teams, showing them using a similar scheme in particular situations to the players.

“I’m always testing [Hufanga and Pola-Mao] as far as assignments,” Naivar said. “Those two guys, Greg Johnson, Chase Williams, Max Williams, are extremely competitive about who’s going to get the best score. That type of competition builds leadership with those guys trying to take an active role.”

Hufanga has always been a film buff, watching 2-3 hours a day in a typical summer. This offseason has been no different, mixing in learning the new scheme with reviewing his old footage.

“I watched a lot of film just from last year in general to see my playing style, what keeps me healthy, what can get me hurt,” said Hufanga, who has dealt with a series of shoulder injuries at USC.

Pola-Mao’s favorite learning tool has been a set of cones USC sent to some players. He will take the cones out into his yard and set them up in offensive formations so he can visualize what he would do in those situations.

Pola-Mao also got an extra crash course on football during quarantine, which he spent in San Diego at the house of his uncle, former USC and Pittsburgh Steelers great Troy Polamalu. He picked his uncle’s mind and came away in awe at Polamalu’s lifestyle.

“Everything he does is just with a purpose,” Pola-Mao explained. “His training, his diet, his sleeping.”

And the best advice he got from his uncle this spring?

“He just helped me with some of my confidence issues with man-to-man and tough covers,” Pola-Mao said.

Pola-Mao and Hufanga have two years of eligibility left, but both are candidates to leave USC early for the NFL draft if their junior seasons go according to plan. Hufanga’s name has even come up as a first-round pick in mock drafts.

“I’m a long ways away from that. I still got a whole two years left,” Hufanga said. “I don’t have social media for that reason, to keep my nose out of the phone as much as I can for me just to continue to grow, to help the team’s success ahead of mine.”

And part of that will be learning to be more vocal, partly due to the new role and partly due to the responsibility of being an upperclassman.

Pola-Mao knows he’ll need to pick his spots, and uses an Orlando term to describe how he’ll know when: He’ll look for the “dark times,” when everyone is tired and adversity is hitting.

It’s another sign of the buy-in to the new USC defense.

“I would say everybody has bought in because they bring this energy that you just have to match,” Pola-Mao said. “If you don’t, what are you doing? If you’re doing your job, that’s helping your brother so he can make the play.”