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Spring 15: Defensive secondary shakeout

As we move closer to spring ball, WeAreSC will break down the 15 things we’re most looking forward to watching during those 15 practices that kick off the 2020 season. Up next, we look at the defensive backs and the options the new USC defensive coaches have available.

No position saw a bigger influx of bodies than defensive back with the 2019 recruiting class. Due to injuries and the redshirt rule, plenty of young defensive backs were able to gain at least a little experience last season, which makes this spring really interesting in terms of how the depth chart shakes out for the new defensive staff.

Clearly, there is a pecking order set at safety, where Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao return as starters. Hufanga should have an opportunity to become a standout in this Todd Orlando defense, as Orlando and safeties coach Craig Naivar helped turn standout safeties DeShon Elliott into a Jim Thorpe Award finalist and Caden Sterns into the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year and first team All-Big 12.

There is a bit of a vacuum behind those two starters at safety however, as C.J. Pollard entered the transfer portal and won’t offer the Trojans a veteran presence in case one of the two starters goes down. It will be interesting to see who amongst the young players steps up at safety. Chase Williams played some safety as well as nickelback last season, but he would seem to be a clear option as a backup safety, and would help alleviate some of the concern with not having Pollard available.

Briton Allen spent all last spring at cornerback before moving back to safety for the season. Allen saw action in 10 games last season and should be one of the answers behind the starters. Walk-on Jordan McMillan will be involved as well.

Both Kaulana Makaula and Dorian Hewett were listed as safeties last season, but neither played safety. Makaula spent time at nickel, while Hewett played cornerback. Both could slide back to safety, or stay where they were.

At cornerback, the Trojans have a solid group of potential starters in Olaijah Griffin, Isaac Taylor-Stuart and Chris Steele–a trio that could be considered co-starters at this point. Greg Johnson gives the Trojans a fourth starting-caliber option there, though he spent last year at nickel. Beyond that, this spring should shine plenty of light on the young backups.

Max Williams used his redshirt year in 2019 but could absolutely be a factor this year. Adonis Otey redshirted last season as well, while Jayden Williams appeared in 12 games.

Whereas last spring was all about Isaac Taylor-Stuart getting rep after rep…after rep after rep, as USC had to develop him into a starter due to a lack of depth, this year should allow the Trojans throw plenty of bodies into the mix to see how things shake out.

Finding a starting four (or five) should be a priority, as they’ll need to learn how to communicate and operate fluently in the new defense. But this spring should also allow Orlando, Naivar and cornerbacks coach Donte Williams to work the young defensive backs against USC’s talented wide receivers to develop really strong depth and cash in on the promise that came with signing so many corners and safeties in the 2019 class.

But make no mistake, we’d absolutely anticipate those “starting” cornerbacks to run through a pretty heated competition to see who can grab the upper hand heading into the summer—potentially without Taylor-Stuart this spring, as he suffered a knee injury on the final drive of the Holiday Bowl and underwent surgery in late January.

With so many defensive backs capable of playing multiple spots, it should be very interesting to see where this new staff starts them all out this spring, and how the competition at those spots shakes out with two fairly clear tiers of starters and backups, but very little settled inside those levels.

Previous Spring 15s
Young wide receivers
Drake Jackson and the defensive line
Offensive tackles
Solomon Tuliaupupu
Sean Snyder and special teams

Erik McKinney

Erik McKinney began writing for WeAreSC in 2004, during his junior year at USC, covering the Trojans football team and recruiting. He then moved on to ESPN.com in 2011, where he served as the West Region recruiting reporter and then the Pac-12 recruiting reporter. He took over as publisher of WeAreSC in January, 2019.

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