T.J. McDonald puts safety first

LOS ANGELES -- The names read like a Who's Who of college football safeties: Ronnie Lott. Troy Polamalu. Mark Carrier. Tim McDonald. The USC Trojans safety position is one of the most tradition-rich in the country, and this year T.J. McDonald is looking to add his name to that list.

McDonald is the leader of a Trojans secondary that is expected to be much improved in 2011, after suffering through growing pains last year with inexperience and a transition to a new coaching staff. McDonald started 12 games at strong safety in 2010 as a true sophomore (he missed one game due to injury) and he led the team in tackles while earning second-team All Pac-10 honors.

Like all players who are looking to be great, McDonald is working to build on his game this year, and he has one goal in particular at the top of his list.

"I want to be all around the ball," he said. "If someone is watching a USC game, I want them to always see No. 7 around the ball."

To accomplish that goal, McDonald has dedicated himself to the film room to gain a better understanding of route recognition and to put himself in position to know what is going to happen on the field before the ball is snapped.

"I'm very pleased with where T.J. is at right now," said Sammy Knight, a former all-conference safety for the Trojans and now a graduate assistant coach working with the defensive backs. "He demands excellence from himself but he doesn't talk about it, he's busy doing it.

"He knows he needs to lead by example and that's what he's doing. He has that sense of pride to compete. He wants to do his best on the practice field every day. That's what separates the great ones. Every day they want to compete. That's what he has in common with the great players who have come before him."

And what a special list it is of the players who have come before him. Not too many positions in college football can boast a list of alumni better than the USC safety spot. Growing up, McDonald was well versed in that tradition as his father, Tim, was a two-time All-American safety at USC and later spent 13 years in the NFL.

"The tradition of USC safeties means everything to me," said McDonald, who is a communications major. "I mean, my dad is part of that legacy. They were the ones who established the tradition before me and I want to be the tradition now. Guys like my dad, Troy Polamalu, Ronnie Lott. The list goes on and on. They were smart players and I want to be like that. I want people to think of me that way."

McDonald not only grew up with football being a primary topic of discussion between father and son, he also had the benefit of playing for his dad, as the elder McDonald was the head coach at Edison High School for both of his sons. T.J.'s younger brother Tevin is a defensive back at UCLA.

"It was such a tremendous advantage for T.J. to grow up in a house with a father like that as his teacher," Knight said. "Tim McDonald was one of the smartest players around. I really studied him a lot when I was playing, because he could do everything and he was so intelligent about the game. He was big, rangy, athletic and he could do it all on the football field. There are a lot of similarities between T.J. and his dad."

If those similarities continue to manifest this year for T.J. McDonald, it won't be a surprise if he carries on the family tradition.

"I consider myself Round Two in my family for the great safety tradition at USC, and I want to live up to that any way I can."

Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at garry@wearesc.com.