One of the keys for the USC defense to see improvement in 2015 is going to be the ability to get increased pressure from the front seven, and one of the biggest ways to help in that regard is an experienced secondary that will keep tight coverage in the back end of the defense.
There are two main reasons for being optimistic that it will happen this season; one is the overall returning talent that went through some growing pains last season in the new defensive scheme, and the second is that there is a greater comfort level with that scheme between players and coaches under defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
USC fans can expect to see cornerbacks Kevon Seymour and Adoree' Jackson in plenty of man-to-man coverages this season, something the talented duo is more than ready for and which should help Wilcox be creative with the blitz packages he uses -- particularly with versatile linebacker Su'a Cravens. That kind of creativity doesn’t work without talented cover men in the secondary, not only from Seymour and Jackson, but with multiple cornerbacks and safeties.
"Especially in our conference you want to be able to man people, if you just sit back and play a country zone you’re going to get picked apart," Wilcox said. "You’ve got to be able to get close to the ball, contest the coverage, and use a lot of defensive backs. It’s not just Kevon and Adoree', we’ve got to use our safeties, too, in order to get our coverages right against three-and four-receiver sets."
Though it will take a group effort in the secondary, the plan starts with Seymour and Jackson.
Seymour is the veteran senior who has played a lot of football for the Trojans and has emerged as one of the most respected members of the defense by his teammates. Jackson is the talented prodigy who was put on the field last season as a true freshman and quickly showed that he is up for pretty much any challenge, including contributing on offense and special teams.
"I’m excited about Kevon," Wilcox said. "I’ve really noticed his competitiveness at the end of the play, to where he can use his athletic ability at the moment of truth to bat the ball away, make the interception or the big tackle. That’s the biggest area of growth I’ve seen from him.
"Adoree' is a real unique athlete, as we all know, and he’s a very smart guy. Now it’s about becoming an expert at his position, perfecting his technique, knowing the other team’s routes and how they like to manipulate a defense. Like I said, he’s a smart guy but there were times last year, especially early in the season, where he was just a great athlete out there playing man. The more he continues to develop as a player you’re going to see him make more and more plays."
The Trojans will work other cornerbacks into the rotation, including Jonathan Lockett and true freshmen Iman Marshall and Isaiah Langley. Marshall in particular is expected to provide an immediate impact, something USC coach Steve Sarkisian has noted early in fall camp.
"Iman is a real physical guy," Sarkisian said. "You noticed a difference when the pads came on in camp, the contact suits his game. You don’t find too many corners with his size who also bring such solid fundamental technique."
One of the areas Sarkisian has focused on in recruiting is bringing in safeties who also have cover skills, because they will be called upon often to cover receivers against offenses who run multiple-receiver sets.
USC safeties John Plattenburg and Chris Hawkins both played cornerback in high school, as did true freshman Ykili Ross, and Leon McQuay and Marvell Tell are both long and lean athletes who have shown the ability to handle that role.
"John brings a lot of maturity and he gained a lot of experience last year on the field," USC defensive backs coach Keith Heyward said. "Chris is a smart player, really dependable, knows the scheme. He’s one of those consistent guys that knows his job and is always a step ahead because he has such a high football IQ. Leon is so athletically gifted, he just needs to make sure he stays mentally sharp so there’s no busts and he doesn’t turn anybody loose."
With so many players in the secondary having seen playing time last season, it’s expected that the knowledge gained will pay off -- especially in the area of communication on the field.
"We know our players a little better and they know us in the second year of the scheme," Heyward said. "Everything is a little more comfortable, they understand our techniques and we know what they can and cannot do. In the first year you’re just trying to get to know everyone, they’re trying to learn how you coach, and it’s a natural progression that things should be better in Year 2."