Trojans’ defense lacking drama
With starting lineup mostly set, positional battles are difficult to find at training camp.
Ykili Ross can do little wrong during training camp. USC’s safety made two interceptions in a single practice less than a week ago. On Wednesday, he dived to snare another. He has earned praise from coach Clay Helton, who said Ross is “starting to make plays for us.”
Yet a frustrating reality greets Ross at the midway point of training camp. Despite a stellar summer, he is not in the conversation for a starting spot.
In fact, 10 of USC’s 11 starting defensive positions have been all but decided since training camp began.
Ross and USC’s defense are dealing with a consequence of their own good fortune. The defense lost few significant players from last season. The players who return have experience and skill. During a time of the season often occupied by positional battles — think Sam Darnold vs. Max Browne at quarterback a year ago, or that season’s wide-open defensive-line race — the USC defense’s have produced yawns.
“The vibe was different,” defensive end Rasheem
Green said of last season. “To be honest, you're trying harder to impress them because the coaches are new. New playbook. You're just trying to learn new plays, get a starting job. Just a different vibe.”
Four starters are gone from last season. Of those open positions, three were filled without drama. Chris Hawkins, who split time starting and in reserve at safety, moved firmly into the starting role. Jack Jones became the de facto starter once cornerback Adoree’ Jackson left for the NFL. And John Houston Jr. has held a firm grasp on the weak-side linebacker job.
The only hotly contested position has been nose tackle. Marlon Tuipulotu, a freshman, and Josh Fatu, a senior, have both taken starting repetitions. Tuipulotu, who impressed in spring practices with a massive 295-pound frame and high upside, may end up playing a majority of the snaps by the end of the season. Defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze said his age would not make a difference.
“I don’t care if you’re a 79year-old senior citizen,” Udeze said. “The best person’s always going to play here.”
But that battle may be mostly symbolic anyway; reserves always play a significant chunk of time on the defensive line.
The next tightest positional battle, Helton said, was in the secondary — not among the starters but over which players would be their backups.
Some starters offered assurances that every spot is still open. Safety Marvell Tell III said that with defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, “no spot is solidified, so you’ve always got to be on your Ps and Qs.”
Hawkins said that there were a few positional battles the public didn’t know about because the team kept them secret. How many?
Hawkins held out his finhigh gers and began to count.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Eleven?”
But even some contenders say they know a starting position isn’t in their immediate future. Outside linebacker Connor Murphy has drawn the attention of Helton recently for consistently performance. But Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu sit ahead of him on the depth chart. So Murphy is looking for other avenues to see the field.
“I’m just trying to carve out another role for myself, trying to get as much playing time as possible,” Murphy said.
He and Oluwole Betiku, both sophomores, are likely to appear primarily on third downs, in passing situations.
Helton said the lack of major positional battles didn’t signal a lack of depth; only at interior linebacker, Helton said, is the team thinner than ideal.
Inevitably the depth chart will change with the wear and tear of a season.
“We saw it last year,” Helton said. “You saw Steven Mitchell as the starter, but you saw Deontay Burnett out here every day practicing for his opportunity. And then it comes.
“We have an injury and he’s gotta step into that next role, and if you’re not prepared for it, then you’re hurting our football team and you’re hurting your chances to create more opportunities.”
Ross has enjoyed such an opportunity during training camp. Tell was limited on Wednesday with hamstring tightness, so Ross replaced him on the first-team defense.
“I'm not even looking at what this man’s doing, what the guy next to me’s doing, what the guy in front of me’s doing, what the guy behind me’s doing,” Ross said. “I’m just worried about what my mistakes are and just fixing my mistakes. That’s all I’m trying to worry about. That’s it. Just be the best Ykili every day.”
That tunnel vision, he said, has made his training camp especially productive. He said he’d worry about that and let the playing time sort itself out.
YKILI ROSS, right, and USC teammate Jonathan Lockett jump for joy after a big play last season.