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Pollard Has Been Waiting for This

Times Staff Writer

Mike Pollard and USC Coach Pete Carroll are counting the days.

Pollard is calm, Carroll nervous.

Pollard, the Trojans’ rickety and resourceful middle linebacker, knows his football career will probably end on Thursday in the Orange Bowl game against Iowa.

Carroll, with his linebacker corps thinned by injury, hopes the quiet senior can weather two more practices to get there. Last season, Pollard was hurt on the eve of the Las Vegas Bowl and had knee surgery for the third time in seven years.

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“I’m not worried about it,” Pollard said after Monday’s practice. “I’m going to play, and play well, in the Orange Bowl. I can’t think of a better way for this story to end.”

Pollard’s tale is full of twists and turns, three of which landed him on the operating table. But for the last two seasons, he has been right in the middle of the Trojans’ resurgence into a national power.

Linebacker coach Nick Holt said Pollard, “is always in the right place at the right time.”

That was not the case before Carroll arrived in December 2000.

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Pollard, 6 feet, 225 pounds, played behind junior Chris Claiborne as a freshman in 1998 and, after missing the 1999 season because of knee surgery, could not crack a 2000 lineup that included seniors Zeke Moreno and Markus Steele. All three former Trojans play for NFL teams.

Pollard said he was buried, “deep in the archives,” by former coach Paul Hackett and his staff after tearing knee ligaments during spring practice in 1999.

“It was a blessing in disguise that I got injured when I did,” he said. “I needed Coach Carroll to come in and give me a shot.”

Pollard, who had surgery on his right knee during his junior year at Long Beach Poly High, was originally recruited by former coach John Robinson and signed a letter of intent with USC in 1997. But he did not qualify academically and attended Cypress College.

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“It hurt not being able to play,” he said. “But it’s what you do with adversity. You just have to overcome it.”

Pollard improved his test scores and enrolled at USC in the spring of 1998, three months after Hackett had replaced Robinson. Pollard learned at the knee of Claiborne, the Butkus Award winner, and appeared on track to compete for a starting position in 1999.

Then he tore ligaments in his left knee during spring practice and red-shirted after undergoing surgery.

“That one was tough to take,” he said. “I thought I was on the verge of really making an impact.”

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Pollard showed up overweight for spring practice in 2000, but slimmed down by the time training camp started. It was not enough. Moreno and Steele were entrenched and Kori Dickerson moved from end to strong-side linebacker.

Pollard, angry that he was not playing, took his frustration out on the first-unit offense. He wound up on special teams, played in seven games and made only two tackles.

One of those hits, however, left an impression.

When Carroll replaced Hackett, he began evaluating players by watching tape.

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“I caught a play Michael made on special teams where he just lit up a guy,” Carroll said. “From that moment on, my thinking was, ‘Somebody who could do what he did has got something special.’ So we went about finding it.”

Holt remembered Pollard as an extraordinary high school player. But like almost all of the linebackers Holt inherited, Pollard’s college game experience was limited. His desire was not.

“When the new staff came in, I think Mike saw some light at the end of the tunnel and said, ‘Hey, this is my shot,’ ” Holt said.

Pollard played weak-side linebacker during spring practice, then displaced Aaron Graham as the No. 1 middle linebacker a few days into training camp. Last season, he made 81 tackles, second on the team behind safety Troy Polamalu.

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“And then,” he said shaking his head, “another knee injury.”

Pollard was still recovering from arthroscopic surgery when training camp began last August. Through the first five games, he played below the level of the previous season.

But after the Trojans’ 30-27 overtime loss at Washington State on Oct. 5, Pollard returned to form. Flanked by All-Pacific 10 Conference performer Matt Grootegoed on the strong side and talented transfer Melvin Simmons on the weak side, Pollard helped the Trojan defense stifle its next seven opponents.

He tied his season high with six tackles in the regular-season finale against Notre Dame and also intercepted the first pass of his career as the Trojans completed a 10-2 regular season.

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“He plays his best in big games,” Holt said.

Pollard’s performance against Iowa is considered key for USC. Freshman Oscar Lua, who backed up Pollard and replaced him in certain situations, injured his knee during an early bowl practice and had surgery last week.

That means Pollard will play more snaps when the Trojans meet the Hawkeyes at Pro Player Stadium.

Pollard said Carroll should stop fretting.

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“Are you kidding?” he said. “I wouldn’t miss this one for the world.”


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