USC Spring Football Preview: Secondary

Thearon W. Henderson

No position better embodies the competition mantra than the emerging depth USC has in the secondary heading into Tuesday's Spring practice.

The position groups that raised the most questions heading into the start of Spring Football last season could now in fact hold the greatest keys to success in 2014. In terms of shear talent, Steve Sarkisian could really have something cooking with some highly-touted prospects entering the fold.

Take a look back to last season and remember that Dion Bailey was switching positions, Anthony Brown was battling injury for most of the year, and the Trojans were starting a true freshman (albeit talented) in Su'a Cravens at safety. The Trojans will now work without Dion Bailey (222 career tackles), starter Demetrius Wright and fifth-year senior Torin Harris (13-career starts) who all brought plenty of game experience on defense.

What USC does bring to the table this Spring are plenty of young guns ready to make an immediate impact across the secondary against the Pac-12 conference that will have athletes in place to really sling the football around the block.

POSITION BREAKDOWN:

Safety: Gerald Bowman (Sr.), Su'a Cravens (So.), Rob Dooley (So.), Adrian Johnson (So.), Matt Lopes (R. Fr.), Leon McQuay III (So.)

Dual-Threat Prospects: Adoree' Jackson (In. Fr.), Rahshead Johnson (In. Fr.), JuJu Smith (In. Fr.), Josh Shaw (Sr.)

Cornerbacks: Anthony Brown (Sr.), Kevin Carrasco (So.), Ryan Dillard Jr. (Jr.), Chris Hawkins (R. Fr.), Ryan Henderson (Jr.), John Plattenburg II (In. Fr.), Kevon Seymour (Jr.), Devian Shelton (So.), Lamont Simmons (In. Fr.)

THE TOP DOGS

First and foremost feast your eyes on the safety position that holds plenty of all-conference performers in last season's freshman All-American Su'a Cravens and physical corner-safety blend Josh Shaw.

Shaw recorded 67 tackles and a tied-for-the-team-lead four interceptions and a team-high seven deflections while playing more than half his games at cornerback. For Cravens, the seamless season transition from Vista Murrieta to the collegiate game was highlighted by his incredible tipped interception against Stanford's Kevin Hogan.

After severely struggling against the vertical passing game in 2012, USC took some major steps last season thanks to the emergence of Kevon Seymour (48 tackles, six deflections, one interception) as the go-to cornerback on defense. Seymour stepped up on the biggest stage shutting down Fresno State's Davante Adams in the Las Vegas Bowl.

The future is also very bright at the cover-corner position since Coach Steve Sarkisian recently hit the jackpot in recruiting. The biggest name on USC's sights was Adoree' Jackson, who was strongly considered the best cornerback in the state of California this past season, and has football brass talking some very early Ronnie Lott comparisons.

Freshman standouts Jonathan Lockett (Mater Dei High School), the Trinity League Co-Player of the Year along with UCLA commit Jaleel Wadood, and Florida signee Lamont Simmons could vouch for starting spots this year but will definitely help the roster in the special teams capacity this Fall.

Steve Sarkisian: "I anticipate we'll see the players in the secondary really mature this spring in all aspects of the game, especially the younger players who will take on bigger roles. It's a great chance for them to earn playing time. Josh is their leader and serves as a great example to all of them on and off the field."

DEPTH COMES IN WAVES

Many of the returning prospects who received increased playing time could add immense depth to the position. The first name that comes to mind is to-be sophomore safety Leon McQuay III, who intercepted one pass in his first collegiate start against Utah and showcased tremendous vision on the backend for his young age.

We mentioned that Brown will be returning for his senior season, and having a guy like Josh Shaw who has shown an ability to play physically at corner -slowing down Biletnikoff Winner Brandin Cooks- could also be an invaluable weapon. Justin Wilcox has been known to utilize strong talents in nickel positions, and USC could now utilize Cravens, Shaw or even Long Beach Poly stand-out product JuJu Smith much like the way we saw Shaq Thompson work in Seattle.

Some key pieces return to the group including Gerald Bowman, back for a second senior season after shoulder surgery cost him last year. Let's also not forget that the No. 34 national prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Chris Hawkins, also returns to the roster ready to compete for playing time among the ranks of this stout position group.

Even when USC was stricken with injuries, resulting in divvied out playing time to anybody who put forth tremendous effort, we got a brief glimpse at some of the fringe walk-on players who could help out on Scout Defense. Some of those well-deserving players include Loyola High School safety Rob Dooley (2 tackles vs. OSU, great special teams contributor) much improved cornerback Ryan Dillard and Matt Lopes, the son of USC's Associate Athletic Director Steve Lopes.

SPRING EXPECTATIONS

Defensive Coordinator Justin Wilcox has predicated his success on the ability to mix versatile looks in on defense, while stressing the importance of covering well on the back end to apply pressure. We've seen what USC can bring up the middle on defense, and the emerging depth in the secondary makes this spot the position to watch this Spring.

USC has decided for the second-straight year to allot the defensive coordinator in charge of running secondary duties as well. After former defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast molded a physical, ball-hawking unit last season; expect Wilcox to allow his athletes much the same freedom and aggressiveness starting this week in practice.

The best position battle that will take place this Spring exists between Anthony Brown, Kevon Seymour and Josh Shaw for who will emerge as the best cover corner on the squad. It's almost a bevy of riches really for USC because whoever wins the position, all three players will come out stronger in the long run with all the added competition.

USC may not have the likes of Robert Woods, Marqise Lee or Dwayne Jarrett testing the cornerbacks and safeties on the practice field, but Nelson Agholor and Darreus Rogers are no scrubs, and redshirt freshman Steven Mitchell could instantly provide strong threats to make life challenging for the secondary every time out.

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