Top 10 performers, No. 10: McDonald

After concluding our series on the top 10 moments of USC's 2011 football season, we begin this week with a new series on the Trojans' top 10 performers this season. With one player per day Monday-Friday, the list will last until Friday, Dec. 23.

We'll rank the players based on a number of factors, heavily valuing production but also considering preseason expectations, off-the-field contributions and alternative options at each player's respective positions. Look at it as not so much of a 10 best players list, but a finalists list for a team-MVP trophy. Overall value is considered.

First on the list at No. 10 is safety T.J. McDonald.

A junior in his second season starting for the Trojans in 2011, McDonald was expected to be a leader and performed as such, leading the team with three interceptions and adding a secondary-high 67 tackles. He started 11 of USC's 12 games and entered the game he didn't start in the second half, forced to sit out the first 30 minutes by the Pac-12.

He didn't have an absolutely standout year -- the numbers show that. But McDonald fairly quietly put up a solid season and put himself into position to be one of the top safeties selected in April's NFL draft if he chooses to make himself eligible. He stands to go around the second round right now, although there's believed to be a good chance he chooses to return to school.

McDonald did have one long-lasting off-field controversy that probably pushed him back a spot or two on this list when he picked up three personal-foul penalties in the September loss to Arizona State, costing the Trojans 45 yards, and then got called for another in a crucial moment in the fourth quarter against Stanford. The foul against the Cardinal was killer, giving Andrew Luck the second chance he needed to send the game into overtime.

Sure, the calls can be debated -- the Stanford one has to at least be called questionable -- but, in the end, McDonald was whistled and has to be judged as such.

As for his on-field performance, he showed some signs in the middle of the season of morphing into a Taylor Mays-type safety, meaning he'd go for the big hit above all else and frequently whiff on regular tackles and potential turnovers. But his final three games after the Colorado suspension were some of his best.

He and cornerback Nickell Robey, who will make a later appearance on this list, made up a defensive backs corps that needed work at the start of the year and got progressively better.

For that, McDonald earns a spot on this list of the Trojans' most valuable players -- even if just by a hair.

Check back Tuesday for the Trojans' ninth most valuable player, who happens to also play defense.