Stories about the USC football team this year have all been centered on the somewhat tumultuous offense. Questions have arisen about which quarterback is best fit to lead the unit, junior wide receiver Marqise Lee’s reduced production level, and whether or not head coach Lane Kiffin will even make it through the year.
What all of that attention to the offensive side of the ball has done is distract outsiders from the domination that USC has had defensively thus far. The Trojans are ranked eighth in total defense, allowing a measly 10 points per game, the best mark for a USC defensive squad three weeks into the season in recent memory.
A key, but little known piece of that dominating defensive play has been junior defensive back Josh Shaw. The versatility he has brought to new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergrast’s squad has been pivotal, and his impact is lost on no one inside the program.
“[Shaw] means a lot,” standout junior linebacker Dion Bailey said about his teammate. “Him having experience at corner last year helped us be confident throwing him out there on an island.”
Shaw’s island has meant that opposing receivers have entered the land of no-catches, and he hopes to keep it that way this week both for himself and this defensive unit against Utah State and every other team going forward.
“We want to be the best defense,” Shaw said. “We don’t want to be second to anyone. We want to be the best defense in the country, so we come out here and play [that way] every single day.”
The Palmdale, Calif. native is entering his second season for the Trojans after transferring from the University of Florida because of health problems within his family.
Shaw was recognized as an elite talent coming out of high school — he was ranked as the No. 28 player in the nation by Rivals, as well as the No. 3 cornerback and No. 5 player of all high school players in California.
It was also clear from his prep days that he was a unique physical specimen at cornerback. His scouting report on Rivals noted that “the long-armed Shaw has such a muscular upper body it is hard to believe he is a cornerback.”
That size advantage has let Shaw, who towers over most corners at 6-foot-1 and 195 lbs., to move around in the defensive backfield from day one at USC.
Last year, he started the season off as a reserve safety, backing up now-graduated standouts T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling, before moving over to cornerback for the last seven games and starting at that position with some success.
This year, with McDonald and Starling gone, he took over the free safety role in camp and started there for the season opener against Hawai’i, performing well and even returning an interception for a touchdown.
It seemed like he would settle in that role as a stalwart at safety, but he wasn’t done moving. Cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Kevin Seymour went down with injuries early, moving Shaw once again, this time to corner just in time for the Washington State game.
He had two solo tackles against the Cougars and then four more against Boston College, both high numbers for a corner, and he seems to be handling the change smoothly.
“It’s been great,” Shaw said of his sudden switch to corner. “I’ve been adjusting well, playing with a lot of confidence out there, preparing myself well in the film room so when I get out there it’s a lot easier.”
Kiffin has been so impressed with Shaw that he declared him the leader of the secondary before the matchup against the Eagles.
“Seeing how he had approached this offseason and the new defense, [Shaw] is really the leader in the back end back there,” Kiffin said.
When Pendergrast arrived on campus last spring to take over the defense, he brought with him an extremely impressive Pac-12 pedigree, having earned the moniker “Oregon killer” from his days at Cal.
He quickly instituted a unique 5-2 defense. The front seven, headlined by sophomore linemen Leonard Williams and returning senior linebacker Devon Kennard, was expected to be forceful, but questions remained about the secondary, which would be made up of an almost brand-new unit.
Immediately, pressure was put on Shaw, the only returning starter of the unit, to act as a field general in the secondary, and he has absolutely lived up to that billing, even while switching positions on an almost biweekly basis.
“I give credit to Coach Pendergrast,” Shaw added. “He came in from day one told us what to do and how things are going to be … We preach getting the ball, we got to get that ball.”
So far, Shaw has “gotten the ball” once and returned it for a score, but his impact on the defense has been much more than that.
If USC’s defensive unit is to continue its dominance this week against the Aggies, who rank eighth nationally in yards per game, Shaw will surely be in the middle of it all.
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