Questions for camp, No. 7: 2nd safety?

July, 29, 2011
7/29/11
4:46
PM PT
Only six days remain until fall camp begins for the Trojans on Aug. 4. We've been previewing the biggest questions that USC hopes to answer in the monthlong period between camp and the season opener in a series since last week. Read the first six questions-and-answers here.

The seventh is this: with T.J. McDonald entrenched at free safety in his second year starting for the Trojans, who will emerge to start across from him?

It's the most open position on the field for the Trojans: strong safety.

Any one of four players -- Marshall Jones, Jawanza Starling, Drew McAllister and Demetrius Wright -- could win the job. Jones was the early favorite after spring practice, earning placement above the other three on the end-of-spring depth chart, but that positioning was reworked in the depth chart released earlier this month by the Trojans. It's interesting, really -- at the end of spring, Starling and McAllister were listed at free safety, backing up McDonald, and Wright was Jones' only backup at strong safety.

They're all equal now. Jones is the senior with the most experience, Starling the junior with a combination of experience and smarts, McAllister the injury-prone play-maker and Wright the fresh-faced sophomore who might have had the best spring of them all.

To lay out the recent history at the safety position for USC, Taylor Mays held down free safety for four straight years, between 2006-2009. Kevin Ellison started across from him at strong safety from 2006-2008 and then gave way to Will Harris in 20009. Ellison and Harris were both physical types, more of enforcers than playmakers, and, except for his final years, Mays was counted on to be the playmaker.

Remember, then, that in Monte Kiffin's defense, the safeties' roles are switched. So what Mays did as free safety is now the strong safety's job, what Ellison, Harris and, going back further, Troy Polamalu, did at strong safety is now the free safety's job.

What does that all tell you? Nothing for certain, but it does support a couple potential theories. The first is that McAllister, while the clear dark horse as a player who hasn't been fully healthy in almost two years, would make some sense as a counterpart to McDonald, simply because of his ability to corral the football. The second, contradicting the first, is that there is no clear pattern to what the team will ask its safeties to do. There are no precedents any of those four must fit.

So, how else are the Kiffins going to decide who wins the job? By fall camp performance, of course.

Lane Kiffin has established a clear precedent regarding that: play better than the rest, and you'll play more than the rest. Starling beat out Jones last camp and earned the right to start the first nine games before he injured his hamstring and Jones supplanted him in the final month. He also has not been afraid to admit mistakes with evaluating his personnel, as evidenced by the depth-chart switch with these players and, recently, Devon Kennard's move back to defensive end.

McDonald and Starling, for what it's worth, are good friends and worked fairly well together in the secondary when they lined up across from each other.

That's it for today. Monday we question who will join Nickell Robey in the secondary before moving on to off-the-field stuff in the final two questions in our series.

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