Steve Sarkisian and the USC Trojans are hard at work trying to close a top-ranked recruiting class in 2014, and there are a few talented athletes still up for grabs that they would love to have.
Four-star OG Damien Mama (St. John Bosco, Bellflower, Calif.) is a hot commodity for this year's recruiting cycle, and one of those recruits that USC is vying for the most. He's been a Trojan target since last summer, and in just under a month, the 6'4", 370-pound guard will have to sign on the dotted line with the college program of his choice.
It's been a whirlwind experience for Mama, to say the least.
“Its been pretty crazy, something I didn’t expect," Mama said, “All these colleges looking at me and wanting me to play for them, it’s a whole new thing.”
While it might be difficult and even stressful at times, Mama is able to stay grounded because of how connected he is to his Polynesian heritage, something he is very proud of and that has been somewhat influential in the recruiting process.
Mama is a part of a group called "The Uce Crew," which is a gaggle of talented athletes of Polynesian heritage that is taking the class of 2014 by storm.
"Uce means 'bro,' so instead of saying 'bro' we say 'uce,'" he explained. "There's not that many of us in this recruiting process so we try to stick to together."
Aside from Mama, Tyler Luatua, John "JuJu" Smith, Ainuu Taua, Kammy Delp, Austin Maloata, Toa Lobendahn and Viane Talamaivao are also part of this group of elite Polynesian athletes.
While at one point it was a pipe dream that they would all play at the same college together, now The Uce Crew represents something more important.
“I’ve known some of these guys from childhood, but it's mainly just us being all Polynesian," Mama said. "It’s about community. When you see another Poly, you say hi. It's about having that bond.”
As the year has gone on, Luatua committed to Notre Dame, Taua to UCLA and Maloata, Lobendahn and Talamaivao to USC. Clearly, the group won't all play for the same school, but it is possible that small clusters will get to play together. Mama maintains that the choice of one member of the Uce Crew has no bearing on the others, however.
"The guys who are committed will be like, 'Come on, Uce! Come here,' but its all in good fun," Mama said. "We know we are going to pick the best school for us to play our college ball and to get an education."
Still, the fact that USC already has three members of the Uce Crew committed, coupled with the fact that the Trojans are pursuing Mama and Smith, has some pretty interesting implications for Sarkisian's inaugural recruiting class.
Mama wasn't too keen on the Trojans while Lane Kiffin was at the helm, but his opinion of the program changed once Ed Orgeron took over as interim head coach.
"Coach O was the first coach I met from USC. Seeing him get hired as the interim head coach was great, seeing the team come together as family," he said.
But what really impressed him was how the Trojans came alive under Orgeron.
"He took a team that you could say was somewhat broken and he fixed it," he said.
Though he liked Orgeron, the hiring of Sarkisian wasn't a deterrent for him. He developed a relationship with Sarkisian while he was at Washington, as Mama was a top target there as well.
"Getting to know Sark at UW was a big deal, but having him come back to Southern Cal was pretty awesome," he said.
Mama has been able to speak with USC's new offensive line coach, Tim Drevno, in the past few weeks, and he described their conversations as "reassuring." As a result, his interest in USC has not wavered.
If the Trojans have an advantage over other schools that Mama is considering—UCLA, Alabama and BYU—it's the fact that USC has deep roots in the Polynesian community, with legends like the late Junior Seau and Rey Maualuga having been groomed in Troy. While this fact is not lost on Mama, it isn't a game-changer, either.
"I've noticed ever since I was little that the Poly athletes do well at USC, but I wouldn’t say it's necessarily a factor in my decision," he said.
But preparation for a life after football is.
"I would say the networking," Mama said of what he is most looking for in his future college. "What school is gonna help me out when I'm done with football? Football is a means to an end, so the school that can help me out after football is the school I will go to."
In that same vein, Mama is a devout member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. It's no secret that he intends to participate in a two-year mission after his freshman year of college, and in an article by Talo Steves of Scout.com (subscription required), he elaborates on that plan:
Yeah, I want to serve a mission now and I’m looking forward to that. I want to give back to my Heavenly Father because of everything he’s given me. I have to pay him back with two years of my life. That’s what I want to do.
His presence would certainly be missed on the gridiron of his school of choice once he goes on his mission, but his top four schools are recruiting him relentlessly regardless.
Mama was scheduled to visit USC on Jan. 17, but an invitation to play in the AIGA Foundation Polynesian All-American Game could not be passed up. As a result, he has pushed his visit back a week to Jan. 24. After that, he will take an unofficial visit to UCLA and a final official one to BYU on Jan. 31.
Whatever he ultimately decides, Mama looks forward to getting his college education and making his community proud.
"This 2014 has the most ranked Polys ever, so its pretty cool. Usually there's one or two, but this year, most of us are ranked in the ESPN 300 and the Rivals 150. It feels great," he said.
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.
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