When USC loaded its 2019 recruiting class with defensive backs, it looked to be prudent planning for the future as the position needed to be restocked. That future will likely come Saturday for the Trojans, as five true freshmen are on track top the depth chart at cornerback when Arizona visits the Coliseum.
Cornerbacks Olaijah Griffin (bulging disc) and Isaac Taylor-Stuart (ankle sprain) and nickelback Greg Johnson (shoulder) were all sidelined Wednesday and did not participate in practice. Johnson has already been ruled out for Saturday’s game, while Griffin and Taylor-Stuart are unlikely to play, though head coach Clay Helton will address their status following Thursday’s practice. If all three are out against Arizona, the Trojans appear set to turn to Chris Steele and Dorian Hewett (photo above) at cornerback, with Max Williams at nickelback. Kaulana Makaula would be Williams’ backup, while Jayden Williams would be available behind Hewett at cornerback. All five are true freshmen and only Steele has anything close to extended playing time this season.
Considering the potential of facing a quarterback like Arizona’s Khalil Tate, there was a noticeable calm coming from the USC defensive coaches and players.
“It’s just next guy up,” said defensive backs coach Greg Burns. “I’m not worried about it. I’m excited about the guys who get to play.”
“Coach Burns has done a really good job since he’s been here,” said defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in his ability to get the guys ready. I feel like the guys know the system really well.”
Hewett began his USC career as a safety but made the move to cornerback several months ago, so this is not a recent position switch.
“He’s a guy that gives us a lot of flexibility,” Pendergast said of Hewett. “I think he’s got really good football awareness. He was really well coached in high school and he’s got really good football aptitude. You really can see it on the field ever since he’s been here.”
There seems to be a ton of confidence from both Pendergast and Burns when it comes to Williams at nickelback. He started against Washington when Johnson was held out for the first quarter, then missed the game against Notre Dame for a violation of team rules. Even with limited experience, the coaches appear excited to see what he can do.
“He’s very instinctive,” Pendergast said. “I think he has a unique skillset to be able to trigger in a short area, and he’s physical.”
“Awesome. I feel awesome,” Burns said when asked about Max Williams. “Max displays everything he can do in practice. I have no reservations at all.”
In the same way it feels odd to call Kedon Slovis a true freshman with the way he’s handled himself like a veteran, the same applies to cornerback Chris Steele. Although he’s a true freshman, he suddenly feels like a three-year vet compared to his teammates who could be getting their first real shot at playing time.
“He came in with a different, calm feel to it, like this wasn’t too big,” Burns said of Steele’s rapid maturation. “It’s almost like he came in like, ‘Yeah, I belong.'”
“It’s always kind of been like that for me since high school,” Steele said. “I was always thrown in the fire real early, so I take pride in that.”
Steele said he’s talked to Williams and Hewett about what to expect if their numbers are called on Saturday and added that he’s seen their confidence levels rise this week and they’ve faced the challenge of going up against USC’s top wide receivers. Cornerback play could be at a premium against Tate, as he has the ability to buy time in the pocket, look to scramble, then pull up and hit open receivers if they’re able to shake loose.
Steele said that the cornerbacks plastering receivers and maintaining coverage throughout the play will be a priority for that group.
“He’s a very talented quarterback that can hurt you in a lot of different ways,” Pendergast said of Tate. “He has dual-threat ability where he can run the zone read plays or any of the quarterback-driven runs, he can drop back and probably throw it 75 yards on a dime, and he can scramble out of the pocket. So, he creates a lot of problems for you defensively.”
Pendergast said they’ve implemented drills to work on better protecting the edge. Defensive end Drake Jackson said keeping their rush lanes and gap integrity, and keeping Tate inside the pocket will be the key to USC success against the Arizona offense. That’s something the Trojans have struggled with this season, and Tate and the Arizona running backs have the ability to take advantage if there are missed assignments again. The Trojans’ tackling ability will also again be tested, as Arizona forces plenty of one-on-one matchups in the running and passing games.
“They spread the field in the run and the pass and it’s a lot of space football,” Pendergast said. “This will be a big challenge for us defensively.”
In addition to Griffin, Johnson and Taylor-Stuart, defensive end Christian Rector, linebackers Palaie Gaoteote and Jordan Iosefa, and wide receiver Tyler Vaughns all sat out practice.
True freshman Munir McClain took reps with the first team in place of Vaughns. Stephen Carr took first-team reps at running back.
The defense worked on taking correct angles to the quarterback and not getting too deep or missing the meeting point, where a quarterback could step up or roll away from pressure.