Nothing can be taken for granted when a team has everything to prove. That is the mindset the USC football team holds halfway through its spring practice schedule.
All USC teams are talented, but this one faces the monumental task of making fans forget about the team’s frustrating 2018 campaign. The defense in particular has a lot of questions to answer: The unit lost four major contributors from 2018 in linebackers Porter Gustin and Cam Smith, cornerback Iman Marshall and safety Marvell Tell.
The team is dealing with particular challenges replacing those last two players, however. The Trojans are dealing with injuries to sophomore cornerback Olaijah Griffin (shoulder) and sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga (collarbone), both of whom were poised to get significant playing time in the defensive backfield. Even freshman cornerback Max Williams is currently unavailable as he recovers from a knee injury that ended his senior season of high school.
All three are expected to be ready for the regular season, however, and their absence gives inexperienced or forgotten players the chance to showcase their skills against a talented group of Trojan receivers.
“I just like working against whoever steps up,” said redshirt freshman cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart, a highly-ranked recruit who missed much of last season due to injuries. “I like working with [senior Michael] Pitt[man], [redshirt-junior] Tyler Vaughns, [sophomore] Amon-ra St. Brown — it doesn’t matter who steps up. As long as I work and get better, that’s all that matters.”
The injuries have forced the remaining defensive backs to fill in at every position in the secondary, which can be mentally and physically tiring but also rewarding.
“Honestly, it helps us more because we’re able to learn more positions on the field and get used to playing inside and outside instead of corner sticking to corner, safety sticking to safety,” said redshirt freshman cornerback Chase Williams. “It helps us all to learn every position on the field and, at the end of the day, it gets our conditioning up.”
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said putting players at multiple positions helps the coaches as well as the players.
“When you’re teaching the defense, when you’re putting it in in the spring, trying to find out what guys do best, what gives them the best opportunity not only for the team but for them as well, you have to kind of mix and match,” Pendergast said.
Taylor-Stuart and Williams said their work with defensive backs coach Greg Burns helped them pick up the slack.
“He’s super detailed, he gets down to the real nitty-gritty stuff and he pushes us,” Williams said. “Each day, he gets more and more intense, but at the same time, he stays on the fundamentals. He continues to have us repeat the same drills, the same techniques because they transfer to the field.”
Taylor-Stuart echoed Burns’ philosophy of emphasizing on proper technique, especially when it came to physicality with receivers.
“The technique as a corner is very important, especially getting your hands on them, stopping them from running their route, making it a lot tougher for the [quarterback] to make the throws,” Taylor-Stuart said.
With young players stepping up, Burns said he didn’t care who emerged as a leader, just that they communicate.
“What I want is a bunch of leadership,” Burns said. “Even the freshman [are] communicating, being boisterous about situations and encouraging each other. I think we have a crop of leaders, not just in the secondary but on the defensive side.”
The other areas of the defense have had a bit more luck healthwise. Pendergast said he has liked what he has seen from the defensive line and inside linebackers.
“The defensive line has been probably the most impressive, just with their techniques up front,” Pendergast said. “The inside linebacker position with the young guys has been fun to watch. They’ve really picked up their ability to blitz inside.”
As the team continues to grow, they haven’t forgotten last season’s emotions.
“We want to come out and dominate and compete every day,” redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Marlon Tuipulotu said of his position group. “We want to hold ourselves to a higher standard than we did last season because we felt we didn’t do what we were supposed to.”
Taylor-Stuart said he has liked the team’s energy as spring ball has progressed.
We’re a lot more competitive,” he said. “We know what losing feels like, and we don’t want to lose anymore. If we just have that winning mentality, not thinking about losing but only getting better … we just keep winning like that.