Heralded high school football recruits are far from sure bets to make an impact at the next level, regardless of how many stars they're awarded by recruiting services or how many scholarship offers they hold in their back pockets. Su'a Cravens, the 2012 USA Today High School Defensive Player of the Year, is already living up to lofty expectations in Los Angeles.
The true freshman was named starting strong safety at the back end of a talented USC defense late Tuesday, according to an announcement from the school's official athletic department Twitter account.
He'll suit up for his first collegiate game on Thursday, when the Trojans take on Hawaii in Honolulu. It's a highly anticipated debut for a player who demanded the spotlight during his sensational high school career.
Cravens, a 6'1", 215-pound missile, was a 5-star prospect and the best safety in the 2013 recruiting class, per the 247Sports composite rankings. He also warranted a No. 5 overall national ranking and sat atop a long list of California recruits in those same cumulative rankings.
Cravens excelled at Vista Murrieta High School, located less than two hours from USC. He led the team to a 13-1 record, totaling 97 tackles, four interceptions, eight sacks and 19 touchdowns, according to USA Today.
The prodigious prospect enrolled early at USC, arriving on campus in February with a primary focus. Cravens immediately set his sights on claiming a starting role.
"I didn't come here just to sit on the bench," Cravens told Los Angeles Times reporter Gary Klein. "I came to SC to try and get on the field as fast as I can."
Sure enough, the USC coaching staff only required a spring session and training camp to hand Cravens the keys to one of the most pivotal positions on the team. He'll be expected to provide coverage against the run, roam in pass protection and diagnose pre-snap offensive tendencies.
Up to this point in his career, Cravens hasn't given anyone a reason to doubt that he'll flourish in the newfound role. There are several facets of his approach that set the stage for success.
Cravens could contribute at the collegiate level in a variety of roles. His skill set is absolutely ideal for strong safety, which is where he'll line up at USC, but it's hardly the only option.
Although he would be slightly undersized by BCS standards, Cravens has superior skills that would transition nicely at weak-side linebacker. His ability to blitz off the edge, combined with excellent football IQ and intermediate pass coverage calls to mind former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker and NFL Defensive MVP Derrick Brooks.
Whether Cravens is covering a tight end in the flat or lined up on the offensive tackle's outside shoulder in a goal-line situation, he is suited to fulfill every duty the position demands. The former high school receiver does an excellent job of identifying pass patterns and routinely controls those crucial first five yards in downfield coverage after the snap.
You also have to appreciate how Cravens erases teammates' mistakes with instincts and anticipation. His field vision is key regardless of where he lines up on the field, and it will allow him to bark out instructions to the USC front seven.
Cravens isn't the kind of defender who blows up ball carriers with highlight-reel hits, but that's fine. Any coach in America would rather see 10 fundamental wrap-up tackles than a couple clobbers per game.
He is patient in pursuit, maintains tremendous angles and aims for the center of his opponent. In an era that features far too many defensive backs flailing around without fundamentals, Cravens' style of attack is refreshing and should delight Trojans fans.
As an edge-rusher, few players in the country compare. Cravens keeps his hips square to the line and closes with high velocity, increasing the chances for a forced fumble.
Expect USC to implement several schematic wrinkles that allow Cravens a one-on-one look in blitzes. Although it's a high total for defensive backs, 4-6 sacks per season isn't a long shot.
Expect the Troy Polamalu comparisons to come continuously as Cravens looks to return USC to a place of prominence among Pac-12 defenses. So far, he hasn't wasted any time.
B/R college football columnist Tyler Donohue spent three seasons with the Rutgers University football program's recruiting department, contributing to three classes (2007-09) under head coach Greg Schiano.