Zone Read: Isaiah Pola-Mao Unplugged

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Isaiah Pola-Mao: Unplugged

Isaiah Pola-Mao’s football journey has taken him from a then long, slender, young two-way standout at Mountain Pointe High, to an All-Pac 12 safety selection at USC, and, this weekend, the NFL draft.

“Zone Read” was fortunate enough to catch up with the seemingly always-smiling, and respectful, “IPM,” for an in-depth sit down just hours before this weekend’s draft.  Pola-Mao is projected to be selected anywhere from the fourth-to-sixth round.

You played on some talented teams at Mountain Pointe. What are some of your fondest memories of playing high school ball here in the Valley? “That was the most fun time just playing football, in general. Actually, it’s funny, me and my brother [fellow MPHS standout Matthew Pola-Moa] were watching our high school tapes [Tuesday]. It’s funny looking back and seeing how good we were and our potential. Seeing all the guys and remembering the good times. It’s just super fun to watch. I miss those guys.”

After Mountain Pointe, it was on to USC. Where do you feel you grew the most as a player in the Trojans’ program? “In 2017, and 2018, both years I got hurt, and I wasn’t able to play. I really didn’t know what to do with myself. Just going through the process of figuring out who am I, outside of football. Once I was back playing, it made me fall in love with the game even more. It re-kindled my fire and re-motivated everything about me. So I started working even harder for what I really wanted…I’ve definitely gotten much stronger and faster since high school.”

You performed well at your Pro Day, running a sub-4.4, but NFL scouts and personnel were equally, if not more, impressed with your knowledge of the game and different schemes. How much did playing at blue blood school like Southern Cal prepare you for the complexities of the NFL? “That’s something we always took pride in at ‘SC. Coach [Clay Helton] always spoke about being a pro every day, in every aspect. Whether it be coming into a meeting, notebook ready, and pen in hand. then you start writing as soon as he starts talking. So, we definitely did a lot of preparation for the pros. USC did a great job with that, preparing us for the next level.”

Describe what it was like practicing against a sure-fire  first-round wide receiver in Drake London? “Iron sharpens iron. That’s real. He’s legit. All-around, he’s unbelievable. He’s the most legit receiver I’ve even been up against. I was honestly blessed to go against him every day because I wasn’t going to see anything like him. Practicing against him all day made the whole secondary better.”

Your uncle, Troy Palamalu, was a legend at USC, and now, a Pro Football Hall of Fame safety. What advice or words of wisdom has he given you heading into draft weekend? “He just told me to be myself. I am my own person. I have a great support system. I have friends and family that all love me, and all support me. So, just to be myself and lean on him whenever I need him. I know he’s always going to be there for me.”

Are you more excited or nervous for the draft? Maybe a combination of both? “I’m definitely going to try to keep the excitement down, try not to get my hopes up. But, with that being said, it’s definitely a super exciting time. My life is about to change in the couple of days. It’s something I’ve been dreaming of my entire life. It’s something I’ve been working towards. For my name to be mentioned [this weekend] is already an honor and a bleassing. I’m super excited, I’m not going to lie.”

Do you get a sense of pride being an AZHS football alum and seeing all the success yourself, and many others, had/are having on the national college stage? “Absolutely. You know, growing up, a bunch of us played in the same youth football league so, we kind of all knew each other. When we got to the high school level it was like a big reunion of everybody playing against each other. Seeing guys like Johnny Johnson (Chandler High/Oregon) have the same opportunity as me. That’s awesome. I love seeing it. We definirely have a sense of pride and a sense of love for Arizona.”

Sources close to the “Zone Read” said you were helping your grandfather do yard work this week – didn’t go see a movie, or get a massage like most draft prospects. Yard work. Spill the details please.  “My brother woke up and told me he was going to help our grandpa in his yard. Move some stuff around. I wasn’t going to just let my brother go alone, ya’ know? I put on some clothes and went with him. It turned out to be a whole day’s work [laughing]…I definitely got a little taste of the Arizona heat again. I was burning up.”

For what it’s worth, the Steelers and the Cardinals have shown open interest in you. How cool would it be for you to be picked by either of those franchises, considering your connection to both of them? “I’ve definitely been thinking about the ‘hometown hero’ thing. They [the Cardinals] had been pitching that to me. They talked to me about how much they love what I bring to the table, as well as being a two-time captain at USC. It’s not just about the physical skills, but the character. They would love to keep me home.”

So would we, Isaiah. 

Good luck this weekend. You’ve made your home state quite proud already. 

The County Crossover: Maricopa (southeast Valley)

This week brings us back to the Valley as East Valley Tribune Sports Editor,, and contributor Zach Alvira shares his thoughts on the biggest headlines in his back yard.

Nate Gill enters his first spring at Desert Vista. Position-wise, what are some strengths, and weaknesses, of the 2022 Thunder? Desert Vista returns several starters from last season’s playoff team, including middle linebacker and defensive captain Antonio Delgado. Delgado has not only improved in the weight room, he’s faster and has become a go-to for many of the younger players on the team. Offensively, Desert Vista is strong at running back with soon-to-be junior Christian Clark leading the way and at quarterback with Braxton Thomas. As for weaknesses, I have questions about Desert Vista’s offensive line. That was a veteran group led by Jai Rodriguez, David Nation, Elijah Baker and Aiden Mikus.”

Last year we saw Nicco Marchiol make a big jump between his junior and senior season at Hamilton. Can you see Mountain Pointe’s Chris Arviso making similar progress after throwing for 1800 yards last year as a junior?  “Yes. Chris Arviso transferred to Mountain Pointe two years ago to be at the helm of the offense. He struggled at times last season dealing with lingering injuries, but he’s been in the weight room and on the track this offseason and has improved physically. Mentally, he’s ready to put on a show for a Pride team that should once again be in playoff contention after winning just two games in two years a couple of seasons ago.”

Chandler returns nearly unblockable A’mauri Washington but, on paper, loses a ton of talent and production defensively. How do you see Chandler’s staff filling those holes and who are some players to watch on that side of the ball for the Wolves?  “Should we really question Chandler’s ability to reload on either side of the ball at this point? I don’t think so. A’mauri Washington is a dominating presence that honestly could allow the Wolves to run a three-front and he would still require at least three offensive linemen to block him. But the Wolves have options. Bennett Scheller, a 6-foot-2, 275-pound defensive tackle saw playing time at the varsity level as a freshman before moving back down and dominating opposing lines at that level. He will be a mainstay in the defensive line rotation that, as of right now, I think is still up in the air other than him and Washington.”

Hamilton dominated the regular season but came up short in the Open Division semifinals. Mike Zdebski has done a tremendous job but what are your biggest keys for them to not just make The Open again, but win it?  “I think, for now, the biggest key will be whether or not Roch Cholowsky decides to play this fall. If he does, his arm strength and overall athleticism can bring the Huskies to another level once again. But if he sticks to baseball, where he could become a high draft pick next year, then the question becomes who will step up to lead the offense that has talent at nearly every other position. Defensively, Hamilton will be fine. Defensive coordinator Tim Dougherty always has that group ready to compete and be one of the best in the state. This year, it’s all about the offense and specifically, the quarterback position.”

New head coach Sean Freeman feels Tempe High can turn things around sooner than later, despite going 0-8 in 2021. What are the biggest storylines you’re following with the Buffs?  “For me, it’s how the players at Tempe respond to Freeman and his coaching staff. Freeman has been amazing at Westwood. The kids loved him, parents and administration, as well. I know they had hoped he would stay on staff under new head coach Brandon Large but he wanted a shot at running his own program [again]and Tempe gave him that opportunity. I think what honestly intrigues me the most is there’s really no pressure on Freeman to come in right away and make the playoffs like at other schools with new head coaches. From what I’ve heard, they’re going to give him time to build that program. Not only does that take pressure off of Freeman and his staff, but it shows the trust administration has in his coaching ability.”

Dan Manucci – Keep On

Last weekend local sports talk show host, quarterback coach, and all-around good person, Dan Manucci, was presented the Distinguished Arizonian Award by the National Football Foundation for his dedicated commitment to the in-state youth, and high school, football community.

Manucci’s love for high school football started at a young age while living in Yuma.

“My dad would take us to high school games at Kofa High School,” Manucci said. “Then, when we moved back to Tempe, we moved right down the street from powerhouse McClintock High. In seventh grade we would go to McClintock and sneak on to the varsity field and pretend we were playing.”

A few years later, those dreams turned into a reality as Manucci blossomed into a standout quarterback for the Chargers before taking his skill set to Mesa Community College and later Kansas State.

After garnering All-Big 8 honors at K-State, the Buffalo Bills selected Manucci in the fifth round of the 1979 draft.

Quite a story for the kid who was first introduced to high school football as a fourth-grader in southern Arizona.

Besides being a talented player, Manucci was also recognized for his selfless team leadership, winning multiple team-nominated awards in high school and college.

Now, for over two decades, he’s been paying it forward as arguably the most reputable youth quarterback coaches in the state, mentoring rising stars on everything from throwing mechanics to how to lead by example, both on and off the field.

“I really love watching these young men grow and develop not only physically, but mentally, as well,” he explained.

 For all the reasons listed above, Manucci is this year’s Distinguished Arizonian Award winner.

“I am so honored and humbled to win this award. This is, by far, the greatest honor I have ever received.”