Injuries mounted for USC in its 28-26 win at Arizona on Oct. 11. The Trojan secondary — a unit that started 2014 shorthanded, thanks to the suspension of cornerback Josh Shaw — lost Adoree’ Jackson and Kevon Seymour midway through the contest.
“I look out against Arizona,” USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said on Thursday’s Pac-12 coaches teleconference call. “And I think we had four true freshmen out in the secondary in the fourth quarter.”
USC’s situation was never again as dire as on that night, when John Plattenburg and Jonathan Lockett were thrust into prominent roles for the first time in their careers, but the secondary also never exactly teemed with experience, either.
Shaw did not return to the lineup until Nov. 22, leaving a corps of youngsters to handle the load. Fifth-year senior Gerald Bowman and junior Seymour were the group’s elder statesmen. Otherwise, the secondary was made up of true freshmen Jackson, Lockett and Plattenburg; redshirt freshman Chris Hawkins; sophomore Leon McQuay III, as well as sophomore Su’a Cravens, who split time between nickel back and strong-side linebacker.
All that inexperience predictably translated into ups and downs. The ups included a first month in which the Trojans did not allow a passing touchdown; giving up a Hail Mary to lose to Arizona State and allowing UCLA to turn several intermediate routes into huge gains were a few of the downs.
“We had our moments where we had our growing pains,” Sarkisian said. “But they ended up being real beneficial for us. Our guys are a lot more confident. They believe in what we’re doing. “We got better and better and better,” he added.
The unit’s collective and continued progress plays a critical role in the Trojans’ pursuit of the Pac-12 championship. USC faces five of the nation’s 33 most prolific passing offenses next fall, all in conference play.
Reinforcements arrive with an influx of new contributors, both incoming freshmen like 5-star prospect Iman Marshall, as well as redshirts like Lamont Simmons.
For those new additions to the secondary, last year’s youngsters take on the role of veteran leaders.
“For us, the leadership role is to just go out there and lead by example,” Jackson said after USC’s spring game on April 11. “Pretty much, that’s how I do it. If you talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk.”
Jackson’s play as a true freshman did indeed speak volumes. He commanded attention in the offseason, albeit primarily for his explosiveness on special teams and offense.
But the speedster Jackson staked his reputation throughout his freshman campaign on his defense, typically matching up opposite opponents’ No. 1 wide receivers.
“He can cover just about anybody,” Sarkisian said.
Jackson’s coverage impressed Sarkisian so much last season, in one practice the head coach declared Jackson “kryptonite of the offense.”
USC needs him to be with Colorado’s Nelson Spruce (1,198 yards, 12 touchdowns in 2014) and Arizona’s Cayleb Jones (1,019 yards, nine touchdowns) and others lined up on the opposite side. And, in turn, Jackson needs his teammates in the secondary to become more consistent against the rest of opponents’ receivers.
The Trojans made positive trends to that end late in the season. McQuay, who had been badly burned on a few plays in USC’s late-season loss at UCLA, was instrumental in the Holiday Bowl defeat of Nebraska.
“To see a young man in Leon McQuay who struggled… come back and have two really cool, critical plays there at the end of the game on the third- and fourth-down plays was awesome,” Sarkisian said at season’s end.
McQuay, Hawkins and Plattenburg will all vie for playing time at free safety, which is indicative of a huge positive USC has in 2015 it lacked much of 2014: depth.
The Trojans relied so much on youth because the previous three years of NCAA-mandated scholarship restrictions rendered their bench thin.
With the options defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox now has in the secondary, USC can get more aggressive in other phases of its defense.