Trojans’ secondary a growing concern

Someone is the hero and someone is the goat in spring practice. Someone enjoys success at another’s expense.

And through three weeks of spring ball for USC, that message largely rings true. At present, the Trojans’ collection of receivers is playing the role of hero.

The receiving corps shined during Saturday’s 52-play scrimmage at the Los Angekes Memorial Coliseum, even with junior wide receiver Marqise Lee sidelined because of a knee injury. Sophomore wideout Nelson Agholor scored on a touchdown pass of about 75 yards from quarterback Cody Kessler. Junior George Farmer hauled in a 47-yard reception. Redshirt sophomore Victor Blackwell caught a 25-yard touchdown pass.

If you happened to stop by the stadium on that particular afternoon, you would have seen a fair share of big plays. Yup, those receivers looked fast. This is reassuring considering that, at present, it is unknown who will be throwing the passes come fall.

But the concerning part is this: They were blowing past USC’s secondary. That’s the flipside of the coin. As strong as Agholor, Farmer and the rest have looked in recent weeks, they have also enjoyed their successes at the expense of an inexperienced and still-developing secondary.

Here’s what’s been clear: The back four of the defense, particularly the cornerback positions, is the unit in question and is one that remains increasingly problematic.

“We have a lot of concerns at corner right now, and it showed up today,” USC head coach Lane Kiffin said Saturday. “Three go routes in man coverage.”

Those three “go routes” went for touchdowns.

Evidently, finding the right match at cornerback has been anything but easy. To start off the spring, USC lined up freshmen defensive backs Su’a Cravens and Leon McQuay III at cornerback. But since the first week, they’ve found homes elsewhere — Cravens at “nickel corner” and McQuay at safety. It doesn’t appear likely either will move at this point.

Florida transfer Josh Shaw, who spent his first season in the program primarily at cornerback, has moved back to safety. Sophomore cornerback Kevon Seymour and redshirt freshman cornerback Devian Shelton are currently out with injuries.

And of course it doesn’t help that Nickell Robey opted to declare for the NFL draft, forgoing his senior season.

“The early departure of Nickell really hurt us for a guy who is not going to be a first-round draft pick,” Kiffin added. “That was the kind of experience we were hoping would come back.”

But that experience is gone, and the bulk of the experience that the Trojans have left comes from senior cornerback Torin Harris and redshirt junior cornerback Anthony Brown, who have assumed the role as the team’s top two cornerbacks. Thus far, though, both have struggled, including during Saturday’s scrimmage.

“He’s really inconsistent,” said new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast when asked about Harris last week. “And we’re looking for consistent players we can depend on.”

This isn’t nitpicking a position group in the spring but rather a growing concern for a defense that, in Pendergast’s system, hopes to be more aggressive. In particular, it’s a defense that requires corners to play more single coverage. They’re struggling with that now, and playing single coverage appears increasingly risky.

“We have to get better with the guys we have,” Kiffin said. “We have to play better, have to coach better.”

The reason USC has to get better with the guys it has is because, well, Kiffin and Co. don’t exactly have any other choice.

Freshman cornerback Chris Hawkins is the only member of USC’s 13-player 2013 signing class who naturally plays the position. As tiresome as it has become to hear the oft-heard line about limited scholarships and depth over the last year, that issue only gets worse as the years progress: Next fall will be the beginning of year two of the three-year 75-player scholarship cap.

For now, USC must do its best with what it has. There won’t be any reinforcements coming between now and the start of fall camp.

There aren’t exactly plenty of backup plans, either. USC needs Harris to be more consistent. The same goes for Brown. Hawkins, though barely out of high school, needs to grow up quickly.

Such is the circumstance.

A revamped defense, though, is expected to be at the heart of the turnaround USC hopes will come in 2013. And that revamped defense is largely predicated on being aggressive, playing — as Pendergast has reiterated on several occasions — on the offense’s side of the line of scrimmage.

But, to do all of that, USC can’t afford to be beaten deep on “go routes,” not this frequently.

That’s how you lose football games, something the Trojans have done far too much of lately.


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