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USC Football: Can Iman Marshall be the NCAA’s Best Defensive Player in 2017?

“Biggie” has all the opportunity to cement his legacy not just as a Trojan, but as one of the best to do it in college football

NCAA Football: Southern California at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

For all that has been said about Sam Darnold and the Trojan offense heading into the season, very little has been spoken about USC’s defense in what should a higher-powered Pac-12 offensive bonanza.

The Trojans have solid depth in their front seven as required in Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 defense, however the single most important player on D has made small blips this offseason.

This of course is “Biggie” Marshall.

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - USC v Penn State Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The third-year cornerback and former five-star recruit out of Long Beach Poly had been the sidekick to former Trojan (*insert sad emoji*) and current Tennessee Titan cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, but now becomes USC’s top cover man and his success is vital to that of the team.

In claiming this, we ask the question, “Can Marshall become the nation’s top defensive player?”

There are many factors to consider in assessing this—however we’ll be focusing on Marshall’s progression in his first two seasons, chances for success in the 5-2 scheme and pivotal matchups in the upcoming season.

Let’s take a quick look at Marshall’s athletic profile:

Height: 6’0”

Weight: 200 lbs.

Projected 40-Yard Dash: 4.53

Marshall has an ideal build for the position—long body with above-average arm length and clear definition throughout his muscular frame. He doesn’t have blazing speed like the aforementioned Jackson (not many do), but make no mistake, Marshall is fast. However, speed isn’t how Marshall wins nor plays the position.

There is an uncanny fire in Marshall which is evident in his physical and aggressive style of play. He wins off the line, using his long arms to jam receivers and off the snap and his strength keeps them close to the hip.

The trouble for Marshall is a lack of refinement in his technique. Too often, he will have trouble dealing with faster receivers, so if can’t catch them off the snap, he’ll get lost and eventually beaten.

Even though Marshall is fast, his long speed is something that has been in question as he cannot recover after being beaten on a route and earlier in 2016, was sloppy with his footwork.

The latter is a bit of an anomaly. Marshall has shown very quick feet in drills and is loose in the hips to move fluidity enough in coverage—but he’s yet to pick up on the nuances of the position to hanker down the desired technique.

In his first two seasons as a Trojan, Marshall’s coverage has improved year-to-year. According to PFF, Marshall took a big leap in coverage in Year 2 as he graded out with 81.7 coverage score up from a 73.0 in his freshman season. For reference in understanding the score, the top CB in the 2017 NFL Draft Marshon Lattimore graded out an 86.0 in his final season as Ohio State and was widely regarded as the best corner in the class.

Admittedly not his strongest suit, it’s promising to see the jump in coverage ability. What is Marshall’s strongest asset though is tackling. He’s a surefire and willing tackler who’s only missed 10 total tackles while compiling 91 throughout his two seasons.

With his consistent tackling as well as improved coverage, it’s fair to say Biggie checks off the box for progression thus far. Both skills are crucial as he’s now the number one corner in USC’s 5-2 defense.

In Pendergast’s 5-2, Marshall will typically find himself in a lot of man-to-man coverage with occasional safety help over the top. So on an island with the opposing team’s top receiver, Marshall will consistently have to be mistake-free—even though he had a total of seven penalties ranking as the 11th most in NCAA last season.

Marshall’s athleticism and aggression make him an ideal fit for the 5-2. The Trojans often send DB blitzes when the offense stack receivers on one side of the field—and whether it be to help on run support or get after the QB, Marshall has shown both elite tackling and nose for the ball.

Yes everything sounds good so far, however there is cause for concern considering Marshall will be taking on some of the most explosive and sure-handed receivers in college this season.

We’ll take a quick look at Marshall’s top three matchups heading into the season:

Biggie’s first true test will be the fourth week of the season as the Trojans travel to Cal. Former five-star recruit Demetris Robertson has proven to be one of the ascending receiving weapons in college football as he finished with 50 receptions for 767 and seven touchdowns as a true freshman.

Utah v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

At 6’0” and 175 lbs., Robertson’s strong hands and quickness made him almost impossible for defenders to guard and his speed is one of the more underrated facets of his game. He’ll give Marshall all he can handle and we be a “litmus test” of sorts early in the season.

The rematch most Trojan fans are salivating to see is on Oct. 21 versus Notre Dame and one of the best WRs in all of college football in Equanimeous St. Brown.

Literally his biggest matchup, St. Brown stands at 6’4” 205 lbs., and absolutely lit up the college world in his sophomore season as he caught nine touchdowns for 961 yards on 58 receptions. With legit NFL size and ability, St.Brown will look to showcase those talents to rise his stock in what looks like a solid 2018 NFL receiving class.

Army v Notre Dame Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

The one matchup that may or may not happen all boils down to success the Trojans and Washington Huskies have. They can only meet in the Pac-12 Title game—and what a game it would be as the best receiver in the Pac-12 and criminally underrated receiver in NCAA Dante Pettis.

Pettis is one of the most dynamic playmakers we’ve seen in a while and is built in the same mold as former teammate and current Cincinnati Bengal John Ross (who knows a thing or two about abusing Trojan corners…)

At 6’0”, Pettis ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at Washington’s Pro Day a couple of months ago and has shown rock solid hands throughout his time as a Huskie. Scoring 15 touchdowns last season as junior as well as being paired with one of the best QBs in NCAA in Jake Browning—this match up, if it happens, would be Marshall’s “DPOY moment” considering the stage and timing of the game.

Marshall has shown excellent progression throughout his career in both coverage and run support, as well as the athletic profile to succeed in his defensive scheme. More importantly, he will have the opportunity to display his talents.

The Trojans will be one of the most watched teams this season and paired along with legitimate matchups, Marshall will be given every chance to show that he indeed is the best defensive player in the country.