Masked by a genuine humbleness in tone, there lies an air of confidence in the voice of junior safety T.J. McDonald.
It takes no longer than 10 seconds into a conversation with him to understand if things are to turn around for USC assistant coach Monte Kiffin’s defensive unit in 2011, it will most certainly start with McDonald’s youthful optimism and lead-by-example mentality.
Last year’s defensive ineptitude (USC gave up 400 yards and 26.7 points per game) is quite possibly out of sight, out of mind for the second-year starting safety.
“It’s the best defense I have been a part of in my three years,” McDonald said about this year’s defense. “Looking back on my freshman year, we had Taylor Mays, Malcolm Smith, Will Thomas and Josh Pinkard. And to be honest we have those same caliber players right here this year. People think it’s just about me, it’s not.”
His sentiments seem genuine. If there’s anything you should know about the captain of the secondary, it’s that he chooses his words carefully.
Some lead by chanting and yelling during team huddles, but McDonald, who led the team with 89 tackles in 2010, chooses to back up his calculated statements with game-changing hits and a knack for hunting down ball carriers.
“Anyone can be a vocal guy, but I try to make sure I’m saying something by my actions on the field,” McDonald said. “I sort of became a leader last year, by the way I studied the game, the fact that I was never satisfied and always wanted more.”
It’s no wonder McDonald feels a natural inclination to lead. His father, six-time NFL Pro Bowler Tim McDonald, was an All-American safety for the Trojans in 1986 and went on to play 13 seasons professionally. Though it would be easy to hide in the shadow of his father’s success, the Fresno, Calif. native admits honoring the family name serves as motivation, not as a distraction.
“My father’s the guy who taught me the game of football, and also the one who instilled in me an appreciation for the game,” McDonald said. “I want this so bad because I consider myself round two of the McDonald family legacy at USC. I have big shoes to fill, and I’m not going to fill those just by showing up.”
Those big shoes don’t apply to just his surname. USC’s current star safety falls in a long line of other talented Trojans who have made a name for themselves at the position — former teammate Taylor Mays, 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu and Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott to name a few.
But don’t expect McDonald to shy away from the limelight that comes with playing the position at USC, either.
“If you don’t have the confidence to believe that you are one of the best safeties in the nation, you’re not in the right area of work,” McDonald said. “With all due respect to everyone else, I am not out here to be the best safety on my team or in the conference, I am here to be the best in the country.”
Although McDonald glows about the night-and-day transformation the defense has undergone over the last eight months, the disappointment from last year’s season, the worst statistically since 1955, is still readily noticeable.
“I know the entire defense came out playing hard with a chip on our shoulder,” McDonald said. “It was an experience that was probably needed. And because of it, our team chemistry is now to the point where we have become brothers out here. It might sound cliché, but we have become a real family.”
As a sense of the unknown continues to envelop the so-called family, while it prepares this fall at Howard Jones Field, Kiffin believes McDonald’s team-first attitude is not lost on his teammates.
“He’s so important to our defense because of those leadership skills,” Kiffin said. “He leads in ways you can’t see on the field, both in the weight room and during off-season conditioning drills. His teammates pick up on that.”
Despite the mounting pressure for the junior to lead a defense out of its recent futile past, McDonald enters 2011 with a necessary dose of swagger and unwavering self-assurance.
“Wherever the ball goes, I am going to be there,” McDonald said.