No. 2 USC will face No. 21 Stanford with a 2-0 record, but not without something to prove at the cornerback position. Last week against Syracuse, USC surrendered 322 passing yards and two touchdown passes.
Going into the season, the Trojans had hoped to see improved play at the cornerback position, as every scholarship cornerback from last season returned. Toward the end of fall camp, however, senior Isiah Wiley, who started six games last year, was ruled academically ineligible for the season. Wiley had 39 tackles and four pass deflections in 2011, along with a fumble recovery in USC’s win over Oregon in November.
Though Wiley’s presence could have strengthened the secondary — a unit that allowed 263.3 passing yards per game and a 63.9 opponent’s completion percentage in 2011 — junior cornerback Nickell Robey believes saying Wiley’s absence has hurt the team would be “a robbery to the guys that are out here busting their tails.”
Against Hawai’i, redshirt sophomore Anthony Brown earned the majority of Wiley’s presumed playing time opposite Robey, although senior Brian Baucham and freshman Kevon Seymour also played several defensive series.
“These guys are getting better,” Robey said. “These guys are repping it out and going at it every day. Some guys make mistakes and get better from them, and some guys make mistakes and they get worse. It’s pretty much the coach’s call. Coach Lane Kiffin knows what to do.”
Assistant head coach Monte Kiffin said injuries have set back the secondary, but they expect a return to form in the near future.
“We just got some corners who have been banged up,” Monte Kiffin said. “We got some corners back, but they haven’t even played for a while.”
Both Monte Kiffin and Robey believe junior Torin Harris — who debuted against Syracuse after missing the opener against Hawai’i because of a hamstring injury he suffered in fall camp — will continue to improve and find his rhythm.
“He is getting better every day. We believe in him as a team. He’s been down with a couple of injuries, but he’s going to be better,” Robey said.
Last season, Harris started the first four games for USC and collected 17 tackles, a game-clinching interception against Minnesota and a forced fumble before a shoulder injury sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Still, Harris showed some signs of rust in his 2012 debut against Syracuse.
Against Syracuse, Harris was beaten for 67 yards and both passing touchdowns, while Seymour, despite showing promise as a four-star recruit from Pasadena, was flagged for two pass interference penalties.
With Syracuse relying on the pass and putting its better receivers in the slot, USC moved Robey into the nickel defensive back position, which left the more inexperienced corners on the outside.
Though the move allowed Syracuse to pick apart the secondary on the outside for 10.7 average yards per reception, Robey believed it gave the other corners some needed experience.
“Once they put me in the nickel, [Syracuse] started shooting outside,” Robey said. “But it did give the other guys a lot of reps and some playing time.”
Amid struggles in the secondary, Robey said it is his role to step up as a leader for the defensive backs.
“I got to come here and hold my side of the secondary down,” Robey said. “I just try to keep the mindset that I’m one of the key aspects of the secondary, so I got to look like it and lead like it.”
One idea was moving redshirt sophomore safety Josh Shaw to cornerback, but the coaches ruled out that possibility and will stick with the current cornerback corps.
“Hopefully our secondary gets back in the groove, because our corners need to play better,” Monte Kiffin said.
The secondary doesn’t have quite as stiff a contest this weekend because of Andrew Luck’s departure to the NFL, but Luck’s replacement, Josh Nunes, has proven efficient so far through two games, completing 32 of 56 passes for four touchdowns and one interception.
“We’re looking to get revenge. There’s a lot of motivation and a lot of emotion in this game,” Robey said. “I feel like we deserve this win more than they do, so we’re going to go out and get it.”