LOS ANGELES -- Through the first two games of the 2012 season, one of the biggest issues of the USC team has been pass coverage.
With three starters coming back in the secondary and a loaded depth chart, this was supposed to be the year the unit took a big step forward in pass defense. The common talking point used by players such as free safety T.J. McDonald was that many of the players who were now in the rotation had spent two or three years in Monte's Kiffin's defense, and that experience in the system would translate on the field.
Against Hawaii and Syracuse, however, the Trojans gave up an average of 265 passing yards per game, a 66 percent completion rate and just under 10 yards per reception. Those numbers are basically in line with what the secondary did in 2011.
"I thought we were going to see improvement in pass coverage, but that hasn't shown so far," USC head coach Lane Kiffin said.
One important thing to remember is that the Trojans are returning three starters, not four. Isiah Wiley was expected to return for his senior year as the incumbent cornerback starter opposite Nickell Robey but was ruled academically ineligible before the start of the season. Wiley was a tenacious defender and a sure tackler who helped solidify the USC defense in 2011 after he entered the starting lineup midway through the season.
As the Trojans looked to replace Wiley, there were plenty of options -- including two who had started games last year -- but they involved players who had not been on the field in a while.
Torin Harris opened the 2011 season as the starting cornerback and made game-clinching plays against Minnesota and Utah before injuring his shoulder after four games. He underwent season-ending surgery and missed all of spring ball.
Anthony Brown took over as the starter when Harris went down and had 10 tackles against Arizona in his first start. He injured his ankle the next week against Cal and also had surgery, which forced him to miss the rest of the season and spring ball.
Another veteran -- Brian Baucham -- was ineligible for the 2011 season and sat out most of fall camp last month while waiting to hear his eligibility status.
Brown and Baucham rotated in the opener against Hawaii, while Harris sat out the opener after suffering an injury in fall camp before returning last week for Syracuse. With Robey on the other side providing his usual tight coverage, both opponents have chosen to focus their attention away from him, and that's where they've found the most success.
"Through two games, USC is still searching to find the right chemistry at the cornerback spot opposite Robey," said former USC cornerback Darrell Rideaux (1999-2002). "The overall defense has shown a surprisingly good pass rush, versatility at linebacker and an otherwise solid secondary."
The Trojans don't have the luxury of waiting for Harris, Brown or Baucham to gradually get their football legs back as they return to the field -- they are needed now. If all three are healthy and ready to go, it sounds like Harris is the most likely choice to emerge from the pack as the eventual starter.
"I thought Torin did some good things against Syracuse," Kiffin said. "Especially with the thought that it was the first time he'd played in a while. Look for him to play more."
At 6-foot, 190 pounds, Harris offers the kind of frame and skills that Kiffin thinks has NFL potential. Brown brings speed, tackling ability and competitiveness, while Baucham has unique athleticism. It stands to reason that those traits will come out more as the season goes along and they get more adjusted to being back on the field.
In the meantime, Stanford is coming up, then California, Utah, Washington, etc. In other words, a lot of Pac-12 teams that can throw the football and will continue to target that spot if things don't get shored up.
Part of that success will rely on the chosen defensive scheme, a situation that will be worth watching as the season goes along. The Trojans saw good success last season, starting in the Notre Dame game, when Robey was given the responsibility of providing man-on-man coverage on talented Fighting Irish wide receiver Michael Floyd. Robey was up to the challenge that day, and the man-to-man scheme was utilized more through the rest of the season. The presence of Wiley allowed the coaches to make that move, but the Trojans have been primarily a zone coverage team thus far this season, a decision that many USC observers think takes away from the aggressiveness of the players.
"The USC defense has gotten more conservative without Wiley," said former USC cornerback Chris Hale (1987-88). "At some point, you need to trust your corners. Let them be reactionary guys. Cornerbacks want to play man-to-man, it's a different mindset. If you have better athletes than the opponent, let them play."
Rideaux says the skill sets for Harris and Brown fit a zone scheme, but true freshman Kevon Seymour -- who has seen early playing time -- has a bright future as a man corner.
"Harris and Brown are both instinctive and comfortable in zone coverage," Rideaux said. "Harris is good as a cloud/force corner in cover 2, and Brown plays the deep ball well. Seymour is a bump-and-run, man-coverage corner. He's got the best upside of any USC corner I've seen since Brian Kelly (an 11-year NFL veteran), and you can see his confidence growing with each series as he adjusts to the speed of the game.
"I would start Robey and Harris, with Seymour coming in as the nickel corner. I would put Robey in the slot, and I would put Seymour on the same side to protect him. Seymour is smart enough to recognize route combinations and has the size to assist with run support."
No matter which players are out there, the corner spot is sure to be a focus of attention for upcoming opponents on the USC schedule, and that can only mean one thing.
"The guys who missed time need to get back to full speed, and the young guys need to grow up fast," Hale said.