football Edit

Matthew Pola-Mao humbled by the opportunity presented by the Sun Devils

DL Matthew Pola-Mao (right) with ASU LB Will Shaffer (Matthew Pola-Mao Instagram)
DL Matthew Pola-Mao (right) with ASU LB Will Shaffer (Matthew Pola-Mao Instagram)

Recruiting is a process that is usually full of twists and turns, and no one knows this better than Matthew Pola-Mao. The former local Chandler High School defensive lineman was once pursued by the hometown team until various injuries affected his college opportunities coming out of high school. After a short stint at Kansas State it was Pola-Mao while in the transfer portal initiating contact with ASU, and this season he poised to join the team as a walk-on.

“It feels beyond good to be back home,” said Pola-Mao, who has been working out with the team for the last several weeks. “I'm glad I'm getting back to it, especially being back home, and I'm excited to see what this football season has for us all as a team. But for me individually…man, I'm having fun right now...shoot…lifting with my new team. I'm pretty excited about it.”

The lineman played his first three years at Phoenix Mountain Pointe High School and traveled across the East Valley for his senior year to play at Chandler High School. His transfer forced him to sit out his first five games during the 2018 season, which was part of a frustrating campaign that also saw him battle injuries.

“I was injured really all throughout high school,” Pola-Mao noted, “but in my senior year, I still had a shoulder injury. This is why my junior year, when my shoulder was in a brace, I just played on the offensive line, but I was hurt, so I didn’t play much. So my first time only playing on defense was my senior year, but I played there in my sophomore year.

“So that affected my recruiting process with ASU and USC (where his cousin Isaiah Pola-Mao plays)…those injuries really hurt me bad (in the recruiting process). But I'm cool with that because of where I’m at right now. So, I’m not even trippin’ on that stuff.”

Pola-Mao knew that he needed to bounce back, as at one time, he was one of the most coveted in-state 2019 prospects who in his prime had over a dozen power five offers to his name from coast to coast. It wasn't only important to prove to himself that he could play at this level but also not to disappoint his friends and family, who were rooting for his success, especially with all of the adversity he had incurred.

“I signed with Kansas State right before signing day in February,” Pola-Mao remarked. “My back was against the wall with the recruiting process. I felt that this was a program that not many people knew about, especially people at home who love the Pac-12. But when I had visited Kansas State, it was beautiful. I had a great relationship with the coaches, and I had no problem committing right then and there.”

The lineman redshirted his first year, and in 2020 opted out due to COVID-19. Pola-Mao was naturally disappointed with not being able to play as a freshman in Manhattan, although he said that he was willing to be patient as he was going through the inevitable acclimation process to college football.

“I did pretty well that (redshirt) year,” Pola-Mao recalled, “and I was really looking forward to the next year. But some things led to other things, so I opted out, and then I entered the transfer portal. But I feel everything happened for a reason.

“I had a lot of DII schools and junior colleges contact me when I was in the portal. It was cool, and I talked to a lot of them. But the only school that looked at me when I was in high school that I was looking at right now (since entering the portal) was ASU. I contacted them because I didn’t get an offer, and I’m coming in as a walk-on.

“But that’s cool; I’m gonna work myself up from the bottom. I'm really just trying to earn my way through everything here.”

Pola-Mao, who arrives in Tempe with four years of eligibility, admitted that he had no issues “marketing” himself to Arizona State, knowing that he could only join as a walk-on and showing he was more than willing to put in the work should he be part of the team. And while the lineman had to effectively state his case to the Sun Devils staff, needless to say, that an important facet of the process was getting to know his new position coach, Robert Rodriguez, an element that was extremely important in this path of him being a member of the 2021 roster.

“We had a lot of conversations first in Zoom and later in-person when I got here,” Pola-Mao commented. “The first thing he told me when I had spoken was that he plays the best players. That right there says it all to me. It gives me a great opportunity to come in, and walk-on or not, I'm gonna play because I’m gonna work hard and not care who my competition is, to make sure that happens.

“Coach Rodriguez is a very open person, and his coaching style is different from what I’m used to. Speaking with the other D-lineman like DJ Davison, Jermayne (Lole), TJ (Pesefea), they're all telling me that he's a great coach. And like they said, 'if you can't learn anything from Coach Rod, you can't learn anything.' That shows me that he's a great coach. That’s why I’m so excited for this fall camp.”

The excitement ahead of this 2021 season is definitely not unique just to Pola-Mao but to the rest of his teammates, let alone the entire Arizona State fan base. The lineman said that the sentiment these days in the locker room and during strength and conditioning sessions is undoubtedly one of quiet confidence.

“I think we can be one of the best teams in the country,” Pola-Mao said. “What I've seen from the vets and the other players coming back, and just their mentality really shows me that we really can be the best team in the country, not only the best in the conference. I think with them giving me an opportunity, I can fit into their game plan pretty well.”

Pola-Mao is slated to line up at nose tackle and mentioned that his maturity and overall approach to the game are areas where he saw the most personal advancement while at Kansas State and believes that those traits will now serve him well in Tempe.

“You get to college, and everyone's is bigger and stronger than you in the beginning, and that's cool,” Pola-Mao explained. “But my mentality has changed from high school, and I have to learn the game better. You have to learn new techniques, understand the personnel…it becomes like a mind game for me at this level.

“I measure here at 6-2 ½ and 315 lbs. That’s a cool weight for me, but personally, I want to be probably around 300-305, so I can improve my athleticism. I know I got the power, and I need to be a little bit quicker a little bit twitcher. I really like coach (Joe) Connolly and his workouts because there are a lot of football-related workouts, and that’s different than Kansas State, where it’s more regular workouts, just doing the basic stuff.

“I already feel a little bit more explosive, and I know that it will even get better with time. Like I said, because these workouts are very specific to football, it's gonna help me a lot with time. By the end of summer workouts, I know I will be in better shape than I’ve ever been before.”

Watching in the last couple of years from afar, seeing the strides that players such as Jermayne Lole made at the three-technique role, as well as DJ Davidson at nose tackle, Pola-Mao knows that he will be part of a scheme and a coaching philosophy that should put him in the best position to succeed. The fact that he’s being placed in such an advantageous situation just a short drive from the house he grew up in is truly icing on the cake, in his opinion.

“Seeing the defense, I can tell that they're very aggressive and very fast-paced,” Pola-Mao noted. “And what they have their nose tackle do….I think I can do great on this defense, especially with Lole on my right and Mike (Matus) on my left. I know we have great outside rushers at linebacker. It’s a solid defense, and it fits well for a nose guard like me.

“It was very important to me out of high school when I was looking at ASU, knowing I could be that hometown hero. I was thinking about that a lot, being a local player at Arizona State. Now my family doesn’t have to travel far to see me play, and I’m super happy about that.”

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