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Where Garza's departure leaves the DBs

9/2/2011

Willie Mack Garza is officially gone, just more than 18 months into his tenure at USC, having resigned Thursday due to personal reasons.

He'll presumably be replaced in the interim by safeties graduate assistant Sammy Knight, the former Trojan All-Conference performer who spent 11 years in the NFL despite being undrafted out of college. Monte Kiffin could also assist him, although he's not known as a defensive back specialist.

But, more importantly, where does this leave the Trojans with fewer than 48 hours until kickoff for Saturday's season opener against Minnesota and counting?

Well, first of all, it clearly jolted the team, a bad sign this close to kickoff. The announcement was made after practice, so head coach Lane Kiffin and the Trojans weren't available for comment, but safety T.J. McDonald tweeted simply "Wow" just as the announcement was being released by the school. Then, two hours later, he wrote longer: "For those worried we are going to be just fine!"

Other players who keep their accounts private were decidedly less positive, although Knight is known as a positive presence in the locker room.

As far as on the field, the secondary's starters are already all planned out, even if they haven't been officially announced yet: cornerback Tony Burnett will start across from Nickell Robey and Jawanza Starling will start across from McDonald. That means this defensive backfield is a lot more similar to last year's than people realize, with the only true personnel difference being Burnett replacing the departed Shareece Wright. It also looks like Torin Harris will be the full-time nickel back, as he was for parts of last year.

Burnett's coverage skills are a a sizable question mark leading into the opener. He won the job primarily based off of his tackling ability, and that's also how he even got in the conversation to start at first, after Monte Kiffin noticed him pulling players down with regularity on special-teams plays. But can he tackle in game situations?

We don't know. And Robey, for all of his precociousness as a 5-8 sophomore, still can't tackle with the best of them. He can hold his own, now, but he won't be winning any awards for his ability to bring people down. His strengths come in the form of balls in the air.

What happens Saturday and what happens in the immediate future with this secondary is largely on the shoulders of one person: McDonald, the leader of the DB's and the leader of the defense, really. It'll be up to him to keep the back four intact and working together through a unexpected patch of adversity.