USC safety Calen Bullock answered call against San Jose State with dynamic debut

USC safety Calen Bullock tackles San Jose State running back Tyler Nevens.
USC safety Calen Bullock tackles San Jose State running back Tyler Nevens during the first half Saturday at the Coliseum.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Calen Bullock was trying his best to keep calm, but as the USC freshman safety emerged from the Coliseum tunnel on Saturday afternoon, the butterflies in his stomach were doing backflips.

Just a few days earlier, the freshman had been thrust unexpectedly into a starting role after redshirt senior safety Isaiah Pola-Mao tested positive for the coronavirus. Bullock hadn’t played a football game in nearly two years after his senior season at Pasadena Muir High was canceled amid the pandemic. But with its two-time captain and defensive leader forced to quarantine for the season opener against San Jose State, the Trojans entrusted the true freshman to take his place.

Bullock, after hearing the news, reached out to Pola-Mao to assure he wouldn’t let him down.


“You’re made for this,” Pola-Mao assured the freshman. “It’s your turn.”

It didn’t take long during Saturday’s 30-7 victory for Bullock to prove him right. After the nerves subsided, Bullock burst onto the scene with a dynamite debut, flying to the ball and leading USC in tackles (eight). In a standout day for the defense, no one stood taller.

“He was not scared,” defensive tackle Tuli Tuipulotu said. “We were getting in his ear the whole week when we found out about [Pola-Mao], saying, ‘You ready for this, young’n?’ But he was ready.”

After his group’s ordinary showing in a season-opening 30-7 win over San Jose State, USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell still needs to show why he was worth a big raise.

Sept. 4, 2021

It didn’t feel that way at first for Bullock. On the field, before the game, he tried to stay away from the team to calm himself down. “My emotions was everywhere,” he said after the game.

But Bullock had already proved through a strong spring and impressive fall camp that he was ready for a role on USC’s defense. Where other freshman defensive backs were slow to understand the scheme, Bullock picked it up more quickly than coaches expected.

“It’s got a lot of complexity to it as far as understanding all the checks and adjustments,” safeties coach Craig Naivar said last week. “It’s like learning algebra. You better know what Step A is and Step B because once you get to D, if you don’t know C you’re in trouble. He’s done a really, really good job with that, which allows us to not have training wheels on what we’re doing.”


Charles Ross can't hold on to a pass while defended by Joshua Jackson Jr. and Calen Bullock.
San Jose State wide receiver Charles Ross can’t hold on to a pass while defended by USC cornerback Joshua Jackson Jr. (23) and safety Calen Bullock (27) during the second half Saturday.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

There was no time for training wheels Saturday, with Bullock asked to man the back end of USC’s secondary in his first collegiate game. He became the first freshman safety to start at USC since Su’a Cravens in 2013.

“That dude can cover ground,” cornerback Chris Steele said. “Just seeing his growth, it’s really amazing to me. Here’s a dude that came in, enrolled early in the spring, bought into the program, and now he’s making plays on the biggest stage. I’m really looking forward to his development. He’ll get more comfortable as the season goes along.”

He settled in quickly Saturday. On a third-and-2 in the first quarter, Bullock flew to the line of scrimmage and snuffed out a swing pass to San Jose State running back Tyler Nevens. The lanky, 180-pound freshman slammed into the 231-pound back and stopped him cold, forcing a punt.

Greg Johnson’s 37-yard interception return for a touchdown was the key play on a day in which USC’s defense thrived in a 30-7 win over San Jose State.

Sept. 4, 2021

Bullock wasn’t the only young defender asked to step in during the season opener. Freshman defensive end Korey Foreman was a fixture on USC’s third-down pass rush package, while defensive backs Joshua Jackson Jr., Ceyair Wright and Jaylin Smith and linebacker Raesjon Davis all played minor roles.

Going forward, it’s unclear what part Bullock will play on USC’s defense with Pola-Mao expected to exit health and safety protocols later this week. But if Bullock’s debut is any indication, the freshman might already be ready for a major role.