Antonio Morales (The Athletic) — LOS ANGELES — Four-star USC quarterback commit Bryce Young played against Chris Steele twice last season, so he’s as well-equipped as any player on USC’s current roster to assess the true freshman cornerback’s skill set.
“He’s a really savvy corner with good technique,” Young told The Athletic last week. “You really had to be on time and perfect with your placement against him. When you’re playing with someone with those long arms … those arms can make up for a lot. So even if someone has a step on him or he looks open, those long arms can make up for a lot. So you have to be focused and precise against him.”
It’s been a long journey to this point. The former four-star prospect out of St. John Bosco in Bellflower, California, was committed to the Trojans for three months last year, signed with Florida, transferred and committed to Oregon, and finally enrolled at USC. The latest development came Tuesday, when Clay Helton confirmed the NCAA had approved Steele’s waiver for immediate eligibility, which means that after an itinerant spring followed by a summer of uncertainty, Steele will have the opportunity to display that technique, savviness and wingspan on Saturdays this fall and provide a significant boost to the Trojans’ secondary in the process.
Now that it’s known Steele will be eligible, it’s worth examining how he’s performed in camp, where he stands in the depth chart and what’s next for him to improve.
Steele (who will wear #8 for USC) participated in spring practice at Florida and, due to injuries, spent a considerable amount of time working with the Gators’ first-team defense. For the most part, he held his own. USC secondary coach Greg Burns believes that experience should pay off.
“I would assume that it’s not new to him,” Burns said. “That’s the biggest thing. He’s already been on the stage, per se. So he comes in with a different comfort level. Aside from that, he still has to learn a new system. So that still puts him in a classification with all the other guys.
“From a confidence standpoint and competing against our receivers, for example, he would probably step in a little more comfortable and ready to challenge than say a true freshman who’s for the first time going against those receivers.”
Florida has seasoned corners returning in C.J. Henderson and Marco Wilson, so Steele was not expected to start this season. He likely would have been the Gators’ third corner as a true freshman, then a starter as a sophomore. At USC, the competition at corner is wide open.
Greg Johnson is basically the veteran of the group, and he’s a redshirt sophomore with four career starts to his name. Through five training camp practices, Johnson and redshirt freshman Isaac Taylor-Stuart have taken a majority of the first-team reps at corner.
Once he’s fully adjusted, Steele figures to play a role as well. The day after getting clarity on Steele’s eligibility, Burns stopped short of saying anything is set in stone with the corner group.
“Everybody is still competing,” Burns said Wednesday. “Even the guys who are going with the (first team) aren’t ones. That’s how it’s going to happen, I’m going to keep going rotating throughout the course.”
Burns has a plan in place for training camp. He’s going to have a set of corners play on one side of the field for about three days. Then, he’ll swap them to the opposite side.
Steele started out on the far side of the field and has since moved to the near side. Burns has liked what he’s seen since the switch to the near side.
“He said, ‘Coach, honestly, this is my best side,’” Burns recalled. “But now that he said that, I’m going to make sure he works the other side.”
Taylor-Stuart said he’ll guide and mentor Steele in order to help him learn defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s playbook, which Taylor-Stuart said was the most difficult part of his first year. Pendergast said he’s confident Steele will continue to make progress.
Steele has lost his fair share of one-on-one battles early on. In fairness to him, so have USC’s other corners. The Trojans should have one of the best receiver groups in the country, so they’ll make plenty of opposing DBs look bad this fall.
Physicality has long been recognized as one of Steele’s signature traits. In fact, it seemed to play a role in his recruitment.
“Chris Steele … it’s interesting, this is a kid who was headed to the Pac-12,” 247Sports director of scouting Barton Simmons said during the All-American Bowl back in January. “His physical style of play he felt like translated better to the SEC. And he felt like even the referees in the SEC would be a little bit more forgiving for his style of play. Pac-12 refs, losing them one here.”
In the past two practices, Steele has been flagged at least three times. Former Trojans corner Iman Marshall struggled with penalties early in his career as well. Now, Steele is wearing Marshall’s No. 8 jersey.
The first step, Burns said, is talking to Steele about it. But the coach knows he has to figure something out.
“I’m going to have to put some boxing gloves on him or something,” Burns said. “But he’s (in position), and the biggest thing he needs to understand is he doesn’t even have to do it. He’s there. He’s got the quick twitch. He doesn’t need to. I just have to show it to him over and over again. I’ll get creative.”
Burns said his approach to giving Steele reps didn’t change with the news of his eligibility. He believed in throwing him into the mix even when his waiver hadn’t been granted.
St. John Bosco coach Jason Negro watched as Steele became entangled in an ugly off-field incident in Gainesville involving his new roommate, quarterback Jalon Jones, and sought a transfer from Florida, which is what ultimately steered him back to Los Angeles.
“I was bummed out,” Negro said. “Here’s a guy who graduated early, really put himself in position to help that program and I think they failed him. But I think, at the end of the day, he got home and he started to evaluate his situation, he felt USC, which was kind of always on his radar anyway, was going to be in his best interest.”
The Trojans were hoping to receive an answer on Steele’s waiver request — along with the waiver for wide receiver Bru McCoy, who signed with USC during the early signing period, then spent the spring at Texas before transferring back to USC — by the opening week of the season. So the relative quickness in which the NCAA granted his waiver was a bit surprising. And the benefits should reveal themselves for USC and Steele soon enough.
“The surroundings feel much better for him,” Negro said. “I think being close to home is always good for your family. To be able to travel to Gainesville and go watch football games for his family each and every week would be difficult. Being at SC and being close to home is going to provide him that opportunity.
“I think if you’re comfortable, you’re going to play better.”
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