Young secondary needs to grow up fast


It sets up like a scene from a Road Runner cartoon.

Wile E. Coyote, the ever-so-cunning and physically superior beast constructs an apparently flawless contraption on the side of a mountain complete with a slingshot, boulders from the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark and 20 sticks of ACME dynamite to catch the speedy Road Runner.

It looks like this is finally the day Wile E. catches his enemy.

Now, replace Wile E. Coyote with the Hawai’i offense and Road Runner with the USC secondary and you’ll see what I’m getting at.

For years, the Warriors have had one of the most potent offenses in the NCAA, but time and again the USC secondary has sped right past them.

There was 2003, when Tommy Chang — who set just about as many NCAA passing records as Wilt Chamberlain had women — and his team marched into the Coliseum, only to get demolished 61-32.

Then there was 2005, when the Trojans traveled down to the islands to face another gunslinger in Colt Brennan, which resulted in a 63-17 domination.

Now it’s 2010, and USC again travels to Hawaii to face a loaded-gun offense. Only, this time, the Warriors have the upper hand. Hawai’i returns an offense complete with veteran players at the skill positions while the Trojans bring a secondary that has a Ph.D. in inexperience.

Junior quarterback Bryant Moniz returns to lead a squad that threw across America. The Warriors ranked third nationally in passing and 14th in total offense in 2009. Moniz was the key component after becoming the starter in October, throwing for 2,396 yards and 14 touchdowns in just eight games.

He probably wouldn’t have been able to put up those numbers, however, if it hadn’t been for the presence of wide receivers Greg Salas and Kealoha Pilares. Salas wears the No. 1 jersey and that’s no coincidence. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound receiver ranked fourth nationally with 1,590 receiving yards and sixth in the nation with 106 receptions. To complicate things, Salas plays in the slot position and not as an outside receiver as someone of his stature usually would.

Moniz, Salas and company will be going up against a secondary that lost all four starters from last year. Senior cornerback Shareece Wright is the most experienced player in the defensive backfield, but even that’s not saying much because he only played in one game last year. He was suspended for the entire season until the bowl game because of academic ineligibility.

In fact, three of the four players slated to start for the Trojans in the secondary — Wright, sophomore safetys Jawanza Starling and T.J. McDonald — had just 10 tackles and one interception combined last season, and that’s not including freshman Nickell Robey. The problem is that those 10 tackles are 10 more than they’ve had since fall camp started, as coach Lane Kiffin hasn’t allowed his team to tackle because of a very thin roster.

The Trojans haven’t been this green in the secondary in recent history, if ever. If Robey starts like he’s supposed to, he will become the first true freshman to start at cornerback since records began being kept after World War II. That’s how thin and inexperienced the Trojans are at that position.

Unfortunately, if there’s any team and passing attack you don’t want to make someone face as the first true freshman to start at cornerback since the FDR administration, it’s Hawai’i.

This means the young secondary is going to have to grow up fast to give the Trojans a healthy shot at winning.

Although it all starts with USC’s outstanding defensive line putting pressure on an almost completely new offensive line for the Warriors, the X-factor for the Trojans will be the secondary. They need to keep Salas from getting too much space and wrap him up when he inevitably gets the ball.

USC sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley and his troops will put up numbers on offense against a very shaky Hawai’i defense. USC’s defensive line and linebackers will get pressure on Moniz and stop the run. But it’s up to the secondary to keep the game from becoming a shootout, as the Trojan offense isn’t exactly built for that type of scoring.

How the secondary performs tonight will indicate how the season will go for one of the most mysterious teams in the NCAA. If they can keep Moniz and Salas out of the end zone (for the most part) and in front of them, they will have the confidence going forward knowing that they can contain almost any passing attack.

But if the Warriors exploit the youthfulness of the Trojans in the defensive backfield, it could be a long night and an even longer season for USC.

Will Wile E. Coyote finally snatch the Road Runner? Or will this episode end like all the other ones, with Wile E. foiling his own diabolical plot and the Road Runner sprinting off into the distance, victorious again?

“Spittin’ Sports” runs every Thursday. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Kenny at klegan@usc.edu.

  • Rich Salas

    Fight On! Beat the Rainbow Warriors!