Entering a week off, the Trojans’ defensive backfield has posted promising numbers. The unit has given up more than 250 passing yards just twice in five games, is holding opposing quarterbacks to a 60.6% completion percentage, and last week at Washington allowed only 180 yards and no touchdowns through the air.
But Burns’ hesitant assessment goes beyond the stats. In a secondary playing underclassmen at almost every position, he is still catching too many mistakes that go unnoticed to the untrained eye.
“I’m not going to rest on what they’ve done,” he said, “because I see all the other little things.”
“Just, everything,” Burns replied, chuckling. “Attention to detail in our coverages. Alignments. Checks. Footwork in press. Our fits. It’s a mixture of different things for each individual.”
It’s the reason why Burns isn’t a fan of the word “starter.” To him, that term means a job is won, that the competition is over. In his young secondary, which last week listed four freshmen and a sophomore as starters, that probably won’t be the case all year.
“There’s always a competition,” Burns said. “There’s a competition everywhere. No one is a starter. It’s just, ‘You go first.’ ”
That is perhaps nowhere clearer than at cornerback, where the Trojans have leaned on three players — freshman Chris Steele (left), redshirt freshman Isaac Taylor-Stuart and sophomore Olaijah Griffin — to take snaps on the left and right sides of the field.
“I want to make sure I know that I won’t get handcuffed with, ‘We can only do this, or we can only do that,’ ” Burns said. “My goal is to have all three of them be able to go both sides, knowing what their strong side is, but at the same time being able to do both.”
So far, the fight for snaps is having the desired effect.
“Coach Burns lets us know,” said Steele, who recorded a career-high five tackles and recovered a fumble against Washington. “Me, ITS or OG, we could all play at any given moment. He doesn’t care who starts.
“Us three alone, we have a real brotherhood. They’re not just guys I go to practice with. I hang out with them on a day-to-day basis. After practice, we’ll go grab something to eat, hang out on the weekends. All that plays a bigger role.”
A similar situation has played out at nickelback. After forcing a fumble in his first career start last week, freshman Max Williams — who filled in after sophomore Greg Johnson was suspended for the first quarter — was praised by coach Clay Helton, who likened him to past Trojans stars Nickell-Robey Coleman and Ajene Harris.
“What a great opportunity for him to develop,” Helton said. “He’s going to be a special player for us.”
Burns said the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Williams “solidified” himself as the No. 2 nickelback, which could free up Chase Williams to focus primarily on safety moving forward.
“The biggest thing about someone that has to play the nickel spot for our team is you have to have a little bit of everything,” Burns said. “You have to have athletic ability to do coverage stuff, but you also have to have the physicality to be a box player as well.
“I’m not necessarily worried about [Max Williams’] size as long as I know he’s a willing tackler and someone who is willing to put himself in there.”
Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis was again limited to noncontact drills Wednesday as he continues to recover from a concussion suffered against Utah two weeks ago.
“No live period,” Helton said of Slovis, who is expected to reprise his role as starter once healthy. “He’s just pitching and catching right now.”
Helton said that JT Daniels, the sophomore who entered the season as USC’s No. 1 quarterback, underwent an “extremely successful” surgery Tuesday to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in the season opener against Fresno State.
“He’s now back on campus and is starting the rehab process,” Helton said. “Really happy for him.”
Helton didn’t offer an exact timeline for Daniels’ return. He was hopeful the former five-star recruit would be able to at least throw passes in a noncontact setting during the spring, and left open the possibility that he could be back in time for the start of training camp next season.
“I talked to him literally right after the surgery,” Helton said, “and he was already in the machine that bends your knee back and forth going 100 mph. He said, ‘Coach, I’m already 15 degrees ahead of schedule.’ ”