Cornerbacks bring plenty of confidence as the season approaches

Junior cornerback Olaijah Griffin (right) high-fives redshirt freshman cornerback Adonis Otey at USC’s practice Oct. 10. (Photo courtesy of John McGillen / USC Athletics)

USC’s defensive coaching staff has seen plenty of turnover from last season: Cornerbacks coach Donte Williams, who spoke to the media in a virtual press conference Wednesday, safeties coach Craig Naivar and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando are all new additions to the Trojans’ staff.

Coupled with the talent on USC’s roster — including cornerbacks sophomore Chris Steele and junior Olaijah Griffin, both of whom also joined the press conference Wednesday — the Trojans believe they have a formula that can turn heads. 

“I feel like we definitely don’t have the respect that we want, so we’re definitely embracing that challenge,” Steele said. “We’re ready to show the whole Pac-12 that we’re the best DB school in the country.”

Physical, competitive practices

Steele and Griffin both said they’ve felt the effects of USC’s new coaching staff in practice as the team gears up for its Nov. 7 season opener against Arizona State.

“Last year, we weren’t really physical [in practice], so we didn’t really get the feel of hitting,” Griffin said. “Now, just getting the feel of the physicality in practice, going against each other, it’s just helping us.”

Williams said the competitiveness of USC’s secondary group has stood out in practice, praising both Steele and Griffin as well as cornerbacks sophomores Dorian Hewett, Jayden Williams, redshirt sophomore Isaac Taylor-Stuart and redshirt freshman Adonis Otey for their improvements in fall camp.

USC coaches have spoken about the importance of depth at every position group this season, and the secondary is no exception. Williams said it’s why the practices have been so competitive.

“Every day is a competition. So I never believe in first-string, second-string — it’s an organizational depth chart. It’s always evolving,” Williams said. “If one of them stops practicing the way they need to practice for a day, they can get passed up. We have talented guys in that room.”

The anchors

Griffin and Steele are expected to be the focal points of the cornerback position for USC this year. Williams spoke on the presence and attitude that each brings to the table for the Trojans’ defensive unit. 

“[Griffin] likes the show … If you like the show, nobody wants to go to the show and get booed. So he’s gonna make sure that he puts his show on every week,” Williams said. “Chris is one of those guys that, he wants to show everybody — if there’s 22 people on the field at a time, playing 11-on-11, that he’s the baddest dude on the field.”

Williams’ impact on him and the rest of the secondary is not lost on Steele. 

“Having [Williams] is a true blessing for me,” Steele said. “Just having somebody on staff with us that really cares about his players the way he does, you could definitely tell the difference in the DB room this year.”

The scheme

Williams reaffirmed his commitment to the “boundary-field” style of play for his cornerbacks, in which certain “boundary” corners such as Steele line up on the short side of the field — for tighter, more physical coverage, typically against bigger wide receivers — while “field” corners such as Griffin will have more space to cover in the center of the field. 

Griffin said the system plays right into his skill set. 

“Out there, I’m on the whole island to myself,” he said. “And when I’m in that position, that’s when my confidence raises up and my talents go even higher.”

Steele said the boundary-field system will allow the two to work together even better, sharing in Griffin’s confidence and adding that the trust goes both ways.

“Especially me and OG, when we’re out there together, I think it suits us real well,” Steele said. “I definitely trust him on the backside and I know he trusts me on the boundaries, so it’s definitely been working out.”

High expectations

Williams had plenty of praise for the defensive coaching staff, applauding Orlando for “[allowing] coaches to coach” and referring to his relationship with Naivar as “like peanut butter and jelly.”

The cornerbacks coach, who comes to USC from Oregon and is recognized as the Pac-12’s best recruiter, said he’s conceded his “firecracker” role to Naivar and now coaches like more of a “Dr. Phil.”

“We feed off each other’s energy,” Williams said. “We still do a lot of things together as a collective [DBs] group.”

But at the end of the day, the players will be the ones who’ll make the final impact on the field for the Trojans. 

Both Steele and Griffin are ready for the challenge. 

“A lot of schools and a lot of people don’t think that USC is like a DB school, but I think we’re gonna change that to a new DBU,” Griffin said. “I believe that us as corners and them as safeties — we’re gonna take over the Pac-12.”