Then-sophomore Jawanza Starling began the 2010 season as USC’s starting strong safety, but he still didn't know how to tackle correctly.
Now, he does, he says. Now, after Lane Kiffin and Monte Kiffin drilled into him -- after he lost his starting spot late last fall -- that he needed to learn how to do it the right way. Now, after he spent the last eight months working on learning all the things he should have learned previously.
In Monday’s scrimmage at the Coliseum, Starling appeared sharp subbing in for the injured Demetrius Wright in collecting five tackles. Lane Kiffin said afterward, without prompting from reporters, that Starling did “exactly what we need him to do – tackle better, like he did today.”
After Tuesday's practice, Kiffin said: “Some things that have concerned us in the past with his tackling, he took those serious in the offseason and you can tell he’s improved there.”
He’s clearly pleased with what he’s been seeing from the 6-foot-1, 195-pound junior safety.
“Improving my tackling was a big thing since last year,” Starling said Tuesday, one day after the head coach first spotlighted him. “Since the spring, I’ve been practicing tackling and I’ve been getting a lot better at it.”
You’d think that, of all people, Starling would know how to tackle. He went to Lincoln High in Tallahassee, Fla., where defensive backs are churned out across the SEC every year, it seems. Heck, even USC signed a player in the class above him: cornerback T.J. Bryant.
But he didn’t learn the right way to tackle at Lincoln.
“In high school, I was one of the biggest players, so I never really had form tackling, it was more like just throwing my shoulder and my body in there and they would fall,” Starling said. “But it’s college now. There are a lot more better athletes and it just takes an extra effort to get in the right position, get your feet and drive your hips and wrap up and then bring them down.”
He learned that the hard way last season, with a number of high-profile missed tackles that got fans calling for him to be replaced midway through the year. He never was really replaced, though, as he hurt his hamstring in the Arizona State game in November and sat out the next three games while recovering. By the time he was healthy, it was the season finale against UCLA and then-walk-on Tony Burnett started in his place.
Two lines from Starling’s 2008 ESPNU scouting report out of high school help explain his issues: “Makes a lot of tackles but needs to work on tackling technique. Must tackle with more authority and … be more physical when finishing the play."
Those sentences are the only non-complementary words in the entire report, but they tell a whole story. The same areas of tackling that caused him problems in high school troubled him two full years later as a college sophomore.
And Starling says it wasn’t just that. As he has spent more time in the film room over the years, he has learned his assignments better and better. And, with that, he says, he can rush to the ball better and get in better position to tackle – which is, sometimes half or more of the battle anyway.
Another interesting thing about Starling: Both he and McDonald, the projected starting free safety, appear to be better-suited to playing closer to the line as in-the-box safety of sorts. But only one of them would actually be able to do it if Starling ends up starting, and that will most definitely be McDonald.
But he can adapt, he says. As he has with the whole tackling ordeal, which clearly took a lot out of him, physically and mentally, toward the end of last season. But part of his value as a player comes in his quick-witted intelligence, and that’s come in handy of late as he really began to process what the coaching staff wanted from him.
And now, with Wright out for at least a few days with a hip pointer and potentially longer, Starling finds himself operating on a temporary proving ground at the strong safety spot alongside senior Marshall Jones, who’s also competing for the spot.