Trojan DBs Learning Fast

USC will turn to inexperienced players to help depleted secondary

Notre Dame WR Chase Claypool catches a pass as USC CB Chris Steele defends in the first half on Saturday in South Bend, Ind. (Paul Sancya / AP)

On Wednesday, Isaac Taylor-Stuart wore a boot over his high ankle sprain. Olaijah Griffin, after missing practice Tuesday’s practice, was still dealing with lower back issues. Neither player has officially been ruled out, unlike injured starting nickel Greg Johnson, but hopes of either playing against Arizona continue to dwindle.

With one of the Pac-12’s leading passing attacks on deck, USC will probably have to confront the daunting prospect of playing without all three of its starting cornerbacks.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast suggested contingency plans are still being sorted, as a collection of young, inexperienced corners continue to jostle for positioning on the depth chart.

Freshman Chris Steele, who has played in six games and started two, will fill one starting spot. But snaps opposite Steele, as well as in the slot, are still available, and that opportunity was not lost on the unproven corners looking to fill them .

“A lot of people may look at it as a problem,” Steele said, “but we don’t believe in problems here. It’s just all opportunities. Jayden [Williams], he’s ready to step up. Dorian [Hewitt] (left) is ready to step up. Adonis [Otey], if his name gets called, I know he’s ready to step up. Everybody has been working extra hard this week just because they know the opportunity in front of them.”

Of those three, only Williams has played defensive snaps in a collegiate game. But on Wednesday, it was Hewitt who most often practiced opposite of Steele with the first-team defense.

Hewitt, a freshman, arrived at USC this fall as a safety, but changed positions at the start of the season and has slowly been climbing the depth chart at corner. His speed was what first caught the eye of coaches as they searched for a safety on the recruiting trail.

“When he got here, not only was he fast, he could do more stuff,” defensive backs coach Greg Burns said. “There are more tools that we didn’t see.”

Those tools will certainly be put to the test when Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate comes to the Coliseum armed with a more efficient passing game than he’s had in years past. Tate is completing 64% of his passes this season, a career high, while still averaging 8.8 yards per attempt.

Couple that new efficiency with his well-established threat as a scrambler — 233 yards and two touchdowns this season — and Tate could prove to be one of the most dangerous players USC’s defense faces this season.

“He can run a 4.4,” freshman corner Max Williams (left) said. “He can throw the ball 75 yards. Any time you have a guy like that, it’s going to be a struggle.”

Williams will likely step into the nickel spot vacated by Johnson, whose shoulder could keep him out for the foreseeable future. Williams impressed coaches in the fall, but struggled to shake a hamstring injury early on after recovering from a torn anterior cruicate ligament in his senior season at Serra High.

He’s worked at both inside and outside corner, but his 5-foot-9 frame and skill set suggest he’s likely to shift inside for the time being.

“He’s very instinctive,” Pendergast said. “He’s a guy who if you tell him something once, he gets it.”

The learning curve for USC’s young secondary hasn’t been nearly as steep as some expected as Griffin, Taylor-Stuart and Steele have all flashed the potential that made them five-star prospects.

Without them, as the Trojans scrape the bottom of their depth chart for cornerback help, Burns insisted he still isn’t concerned about his secondary’s inexperience.

“It is what it is,” Burns said. “You can’t worry about it. I have to play who I have. But the cool part is this group has always been locked in.”

latimes.com

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Trojan96
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Why do I have the feeling this will be a Wild West high scoring shootout this Saturday? Steele looks to be a solid corner so I’m not too concerned about one side of the field but the other is going to be a big question mark. Plus I doubt Clancy has figured out on how to sure up the ends, so expect Tate to break off some large chunks using his feet. Thank God Arizona’s defense is really bad. This should be a high scoring affair.

Scipio
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Before the season began I penciled in AZ game as a blow out win. Today I predict USC 45-AZ 37. Little defense will be played in this game on both sides of the ball. With our secondary banged up that makes Tate a real X factor more than normal. I re watched the UW-AZ game, and AZ was only behind by 3 points with six min. left in the third quarter. That’s when the turnovers continued to mount. As you well know Rector is a liability on the edge, and Drake still gets sucked inside sometimes but has the ability… Read more »

RialtoTrojan
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The inexperienced guys might surprise us… Nah who am I kidding? I expect they will try, but it looks like an excuse brewing in Heltonville. Unfortunately this sets me up for disappointment because in my heart of hearts I always want USC to win. So my instincts say, “we’ll be alright,” but my experience of late says, “we’re screwed.” I haven’t been to the coliseum this season because of our schedule at home and the fact that the games are way overpriced for the current product. My daughter, who has been attending home games since 1994 said she missed the… Read more »

Scipio
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Its always worrisome when fond memories are sad to remember.

TrojanRJJ
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Interesting games this week: UCLA at Stanford and AZ at USC. UCLA game is tonight. I actually expect a very good game and I expect UCLA to win. Reason is match ups. UCLA has a huge DL that is designed to stop the run. Its D is just awful against the pass. Stanford is a run based team playing (a) its 3rd team QB and (b) I think is now starting 3 true frosh OL due to injuries. Should be a very good game. First comment on the SC/AZ game is I will not able to watch it. I do… Read more »

Steveg
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So it appears that Clancy’s rigid position on playing as few players as possible is back to haunt him. Some things never change no matter what the talk is. I know that other than the Stanford game was there a huge opportunity to freely sub, but to get guys into a game for a series is crucial to growth. Now we will have essentially zero experience at the corners, just great. It takes a game we had a good shot at winning to a total toss up now. Again, no expectations for this game, just going to sit back and… Read more »

TrojanMPA90
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Soon we will have a real Defensive Coordinator who understands rotational depth and how to not use a 4-2-5 alignment.