LOS ANGELES — On Wednesday after practice, USC safety Calen Bullock got an unexpected call.

Starting safety and captain Isaiah Pola-Mao had tested positive for COVID-19 and would be in quarantine for the Trojans’ season opener against San Jose State. And Bullock, who had not played in a game since his junior year at Pasadena Muir due to the pandemic, would be starting in his place.

“At first, I was happy. My emotions was everywhere. I was calling my mom,” Bullock said. “And then I reached out to Isaiah, really just telling him I got him, I won’t let him down.”

And Bullock, the first true freshman to start at safety for USC since Su’a Cravens in 2013, held his word, leading the Trojans with eight tackles in a 30-7 win.

None was bigger than an ankle tackle of running back Tyler Nevens on third-and-two. Initially called a first-down conversion, the officials reviewed the play and ruled that Bullock had made the stop to force the punt on the Spartans’ third drive of the game.

“For that to be his first game, he looked very comfortable out there,” senior nickel back Greg Johnson said. “It was exciting just to see him fly around and do the things that he did. That is just a testament to his hard work.”

Cornerback Chris Steele added, “We call Calen ‘Sticks’ because he’s a tall, skinny kid [6-foot-3, 180 pounds]. But that dude can cover ground. … I’m telling him [before a down], ‘Play the post.’ Sure enough, that dude is right there breaking on the post, making plays on the post.”

Bullock enrolled at USC early and was able to transition to the speed of the college game during spring practices and fall camp. But even still, he had to work before the game to make sure his adrenaline didn’t get the best of him.

“My emotions was everywhere,” Bullock said. “Really just trying to stay calm in pregame. I tried to get on the field, stay away from the team and just try to calm myself down because I was really tense coming in the game. … Once I got the first tackle, it was football after that.”


Defensive end Nick Figueroa left the game at halftime with an AC joint sprain, head coach Clay Helton said. Figueroa came out of the locker room with a brace on his right shoulder, but told Helton he would be ready for next week’s game against Stanford.

Steele said he left the game with a hamstring issue but expected it not to be an injury that lingers into next week either. And outside linebacker Drake Jackson left the game with what Helton called “bumps and bruises” that should not factor into Week 2.