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State of the Trojans: Defensive Backs

No position spent more time less than full strength this past spring than the defensive backfield.

Likely starting cornerback Olaijah Griffin sat out all of spring ball. Likely starting safety Talanoa Hufanga was limited to a yellow non-contact jersey for the first several practices, then rebroke his collarbone and missed the remainder. Safety Isaiah Pola-Mao and cornerback Greg Johnson were limited to non-contact for almost all of spring. Early enrollee cornerback Max Williams was limited to a few conditioning drills here and there as he continues to work back from a knee injury. And safety C.J. Pollard sat out the entire spring while recovering from an injury.

The bad news for this group is that there is a glaring lack of experience, with just one senior in the entire unit. The defensive backs will need to grow up quickly this season, relying on some superior athleticism and the limited playing time they do have.

The good news is that the everybody should be back and ready to go for fall, and a few guys who needed the reps got plenty of them during the spring. We also saw a ton of teaching from new defensive backs coach Greg Burns, who looked to mesh well with his group. He’ll get a big assist from graduate assistant Chris Hawkins, who has experience playing both cornerback and safety at USC.

At the top of the list of players who received important reps this spring is cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart, who took a big leap forward with those extended reps. It would not be a surprise to see Taylor-Stuart earn a starting spot this fall, as he looked to channel all that athleticism into solid cornerback play for 15 practices.

It will be nice to see Griffin back on the field this fall. He should be ready to take that next step forward after a solid freshman season. Hopefully he can stay healthy after undergoing surgery on both shoulders this off-season, as shoulder injuries kept him out of four games last year.

Greg Johnson entertained the idea of transferring this spring, but opted to remain at USC, which was a huge boost for the USC secondary. Johnson was beat at times last year, but this is still a guy at the beginning of his career and, despite being held out of contact this spring, looks ready to make a sizable impact this fall.

Chase Williams saw some action at safety last season, but looked really comfortable at nickel back this spring. He should be a guy who sees the field a lot this fall, and appears ready for that workload. He rotated at nickel back with Raymond Scott, who represented an interesting move as the USC coaches looked to get him out of a crowded linebacker room and into a spot where he could use some of his quickness in order to allow the Trojans to line up against a spread offense while not giving up too much in the way of size.

The lone senior, Dominic Davis, got his opportunities this spring and made the most of them, putting together several solid practices. While it’s unlikely he’ll push for a starting spot this fall, he does provide depth, which could be called upon at various points.

With so few bodies this spring, it’ll be up to the new additions to learn quickly in order to at least provide depth, if not immediate reps. All eyes will be on Chris Steele, who transferred to USC from Florida following spring ball and will be looking for the NCAA to grant him immediate eligibility. If that happens, Steele will almost certainly join the rotation this fall, as a true freshman capable of making a quick impact.

Williams is another true freshman to watch, as few incoming defensive backs in college football have his combination of football IQ and technical ability. It will be a race against his knee to see if it’s capable of holding up to a full workload once fall camp starts, and he’ll likely be the smallest cornerback on any roster, but there’s a spot for him on the depth chart when he’s fully healthy.

Incoming freshman Trey Davis is going to be someone to watch this fall. USC coaches made a decision to go after him instead of a number of in-state prospects and never wavered in their pursuit. He’ll have a chance to prove them right.

Adonis Otey will be another true freshmen who gets thrown into the fire quickly, as USC coaches look to find out what they have to work with this year in the secondary. He was a late flip from Arkansas and has some upside at both safety and cornerback.

Juco signee Jaylen Watson was another late addition to the recruiting class as USC coaches looked to load up on defensive backs. He would bring some serious size to the cornerback and is another guy who could wind up getting a look at safety.

As for those safeties, Talanoa Hufanga looks ready to take the next step forward and potentially become the next great USC safety. Even wearing the yellow non-contact jersey to start the spring, he was among the top two or three performers regardless of position when he went down with his injury. He looks ready to have a big year in 2019.

Next to him, Isaiah Pola-Mao turned in a terrific spring. Not only was his play impressive, but he really worked to step forward into a leadership role, consistently barking instructions and comments both from his position as well as from the sideline.

C.J. Pollard should help the safety position with depth, or work to push for a starting spot this fall. He brings a little experience to the position and played well when called upon last year.

An interesting addition will be early enrollee Briton Allen, who spent almost the entire spring at cornerback, but will shift back to safety for the season. He took so many reps this spring that he could be very comfortable with the defense come fall, and could be called upon to see the field in a hurry, as he’ll likely start the season on the two-deep.

Incoming freshmen Jayden Williams and Kaulana Makaula will add depth to the position this fall, as both cornerback and safety have been replenished with this recruiting class after losing so many guys off last year’s roster to transfer or graduation. Some of these incoming freshmen were late additions and not the results of impressive recruiting victories, so we should get a good look at the evaluation and coaching ability of defensive backs coach Greg Burns and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast this fall.

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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