- Erik McKinney, ESPN Staff Writer
LOS ANGELES -- The USC Trojans finished last season ranked No. 102 in the nation in pass defense. At the conclusion of the 2010 season, they sat at No. 109. Safe to say, it has been a few years since anybody has thrown the term “great” around when discussing the USC secondary. But that didn’t stop senior safety T.J. McDonald from hinting at the possibility as the Trojans prepare for Saturday’s spring game.
“Defensively, we’re playing fast,” McDonald said. “Coaches can throw adjustments at us and we can pick it up and play it right away. That’s something that all great defenses can do and I think we’re taking a step in that direction. We have a lot of work to do, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
The defense has benefitted from not having to go against wide receiver Robert Woods at all this spring. Wide receiver George Farmer has been limited by a hamstring injury, and outside of the first week, the Trojans have been working with one or less tight ends. But the experience in the secondary, led by three-year starters in McDonald, safety Jawanza Starling and cornerback Nickell Robey, makes this group formidable, and head coach Lane Kiffin has taken notice.
“They’re playing far better than they’ve ever played since we’ve been here,” Kiffin said of the defensive backs. “It will be pretty neat to see what it’s like to play some pass defense, get some three-and-outs and some interceptions.”
It’s tough to tell how lighthearted Kiffin was being during that final line. But McDonald said that since the arrival of defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders, things have been no joke.
“We definitely clicked right away,” McDonald said. “We look forward to going to meetings because there’s always something new. He engages really well with us. He gets right in your face and doesn’t just show you what you’re doing, but lets you know why you’re doing it, so you can really understand it and really understand the game of football defensively.”
McDonald said that he feels as though he is back in high school with how fast he is able to play and the way he is able to fly around the field. Overall, the improved play of the secondary has led to an increased number of interceptions this spring, and McDonald said the foot isn’t going to come off the pedal when offensive players such as Woods return in the fall.
“We can’t slow down,” McDonald said of taking advantage of a depleted offense this spring. “They’re going to come back in the fall and it’s not going to be easy on Robert either. He’s been out. He hasn’t seen this secondary. That’s the competition we have. When Robert comes back, he’s going to have to prove himself all over again.”
In McDonald’s freshman season, the USC secondary was one-year removed from the stellar 2008 season and still boasted cornerbacks Kevin Thomas and Josh Pinkard, as well as safeties Taylor Mays and Will Harris. But he believes this group has a chance to be even better.
“This is a great secondary,” McDonald said, adding that this is the best group with which he has played. “We’re clicking. We have guys that can come off the bench and we’re all talking the same language. That speaks to our football IQ going up to the next level and that’s going to set us apart from years past in the secondary.”
21hKevin Gemmell and Erik McKinney