T.J. McDonald among the stars for USC

There are three players on the front of USC's spring football media guide: junior quarterback Matt Barkley, sophomore receiver Robert Woods and...junior safety T.J. McDonald.

It's a good assortment; those three are the only stars the Trojans have. And, yes, McDonald is a star, or at least a star in the making.

He's got everything you'd want to see in a college safety: size, smarts, a solid year of experience and room for improvement. He finished last season with a team-high 89 tackles and three interceptions, plus a blocked punt, sack and four passes defensed while starting 12 of USC's 13 games. (He missed the finale at UCLA because of a shoulder injury).

And now, as evidenced by his selection as one of the Trojans' key players on the media guide, McDonald is being asked to play an even bigger role with the Trojans as the de facto leader of the defense and star player in the secondary. So far, through four spring practices, he's lived up to that billing.

"I think T.J. McDonald has taken his game to the next level," Trojans coach Lane Kiffin said Tuesday.

For his part, McDonald says his improvements over the last four months have come largely in the non-physical part of the game: i.e., he's been focusing on leadership and toughening up his mind.

"The biggest thing would just be the mental aspect of the game," McDonald said Tuesday. "Being able to analyze offenses, mentally, and being able to see the play before it happens and being able to be vocal to the rest of the guys. That's one thing I improved on."

In the secondary, there are two set spots and two entirely uncertain spots. McDonald is the free safety; sophomore Nickell Robey is the No.1 cornerback. The other positions are up in the air, but McDonald feels optimistic about his defensive back mates and his own personal growth.

"I feel l'm a lot more confident than I was last year," McDonald said. "Not to say I wasn't confident last year, but I'll be a year better than I was last year and coming into this spring, my second spring here, I'm excited for what the future holds."