In Part I, I took a look at the defensive line, where USC lost three of the four regular starters. Now I want to preview the strongest and weakest points of the Trojan defense.
Let’s start with the strongest. It is certainly not news to anyone that the defensive backfield is the most experienced and talented facet of the Trojan defense.
Led by everyone’s All-American, Taylor Mays, a senior who has made just about every defensive watch list in college football, may very well be one of the top players in the nation. Playing strong safety last year, Mays switched over to free safety in spring practice and remains there so far during fall camp.
Joining Mays on the other side at strong safety is a rare sixth-year player, Josh Pinkard, who can also play cornerback. It is entirely possible that Mays could switch back to strong safety and let Josh roam back there at the free safety spot.
Backing them up is senior Will Harris. Last year Harris took over for Kevin Ellison, now with the San Diego Chargers, following an injury and did a commendable job.
Sophomore Drew McAllister led the team in interceptions as a freshman with three. With Mays, Pinkard and Harris all leaving after this season, McAllister is looking to become a future starter and will no doubt see plenty of playing time this season.
The coaching staff is excited about the trio of freshman safeties: Patrick Hall, Jawanza Starling and T.J. McDonald.
Hall just joined the team today and got on the field for the first. He had to take a summer course to add to his credits in order to gain NCAA academic clearance. But no sooner did Hall get on the field than he got injured. Trainers are evaluating his knee injury as I am writing this. C’est la vie!
Starling and McDonald have been working out with the team this summer and have shown great natural talent. They have good size and were considered among the finest prep safeties in the nation. They should gain invaluable experience this season working with veterans like Mays, Pinkard and Harris.
The Trojans also have two lock down corners in Kevin Thomas and Shareece Wright. A senior, Thomas stepped in for Wright last year following a neck injury and was very productive.
Wright looked to be on his way to an outstanding season last year before the injury. But so far in camp he has picked up where he left off and has made his presence known defending against the run and the pass.
Backing them up is T. J. Bryant, an outstanding sophomore. Bryant, who showed a great deal of promise as a prep star, has really come into his own during spring practice and so far in fall camp.
Marshall Jones, a converted safety, will be battling it out at the nickel position with red-shirt freshman Brian Baucham. Jones had an outstanding spring practice while Baucham is having an excellent fall camp after coming off a foot injury.
Pete Carroll has really enjoyed the play of two freshmen cornerbacks, Byron Moore and Torin Harris, during fall camp. Harris has especially pleased Carroll, and Moore has been coming on strong over the past week.
Now for the weakest link in the Trojan defense – the linebackers.
Last year’s entire starting unit is now playing in the NFL. It’s not that the new crop of linebackers isn’t as talented. It’s that they don’t have the kind of savvy that you get from three-and-four-year starters like Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga, and Kaluka Maiava.
Currently topping the depth chart at weak-side linebacker is junior Malcolm Smith. The brother of former Trojan and New York Giants wide receiver, Steve Smith, Malcolm had a fine spring outing. He is fast and mobile and has made some strong hits but still needs to learn the various looks an offense will give him.
Backing up Smith is Jordan Campbell, who made the switch from offense to linebacker last season. Battling both Smith and Campbell for playing time will be another convert. Shane Horton, a transfer from UNLV, has been playing safety but recently switch to weak-side linebacker and has looked very good.
The 210-pound Horton has upped his weight to nearly 220 and likes playing behind his brother defensive end Wes Horton. Pete Carroll had asked Horton to make the switch in order to bolster the linebacking corps. Now he is asking Horton to learn the SAM position (Strong-Side Linebacker) as well.
Freshman Marquis Simmons rounds out the weak-side depth chart. A bit on the light side for a linebacker, Simmons will probably spend the year bulking up and learning the defense.
Red-shirt sophomore Chris Galippo holds down the Mike position (middle linebacker) at least for now. Galippo faces two main obstacles in keeping his job – injuries and competition. Various injuries have sidelined Galippo during his first two years at USC. Now that he has returned and is apparently injury free, he must face competition from sophomore Uona Kavienga, second on the depth chart. Kavienga played very well during spring practice.
However, the greater challenge for Galippo may just come from an incoming freshman, Jarvis Jones. One of Pete Carroll’s top recruits this past year, Jones, from Georgia, has been everything Coach Carroll had expected and then some.
Even if Jones doesn’t take Galippo’s job away, I believe there is no way this freshman will redshirt barring injury. I expect Jones to see a lot of playing time, and Trojan fans to be pleased with what they see.
An incredible 6 foot 3 inch, 240-pound freshman, Jones will also compete at the SAM spot (strong-sde linebacker), which is currently being held down by red-shirt junior Mike Morgan. Morgan is much lighter than most linebackers but he has blinding 4.4 speed and is extremely athletic.
Luther Brown, who has just returned to the field after finally becoming academically eligible, will compete with Morgan. Brown is the most experienced of the linebackers. But now that his academic issues are resolved, he needs to work on staying healthy.
Also competing with Morgan and Brown is a former walk-on, Nick Garratt. Don’t count Garratt out of the mix just because he is a walk-on. So was Clay Matthews, Junior, and now he is with the Green Bay Packers.
A red-shirt senior, Garratt, like Matthews, provides some versatility at linebacker. Although he operates mainly on the strong side, Garratt has played in the middle and knows all three positions relatively well.
Another incoming freshman, Kevin Greene, is transitioning from defensive end to linebacker. A terrific athlete with good size, Greene will probably need some time to learn the position and get used to covering tight ends and tailbacks. That may take him some time to adjust.
For the latest injury updates and position switches, check my TROJAN NOTES: Injuries & Position Updates.