There’s definite reason for optimism for first-year USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox heading into spring ball. After all, he inherits some key pieces from a unit that finished the 2013 campaign ranked No. 13 in the FBS in total defense (334.9 yards allowed per game) and No. 1 in red zone defense (63 percent scoring percentage).
Still, for the defense to really take off under Wilcox in 2014, there’s one position group that will need to elevate its level of play -- the cornerbacks. Plagued by injuries, the USC corners struggled at times in pass coverage, particularly in games against Arizona State, Arizona and Notre Dame. As such, expect Wilcox and defensive backs coach Keith Heyward to hold an open audition this spring as they look to find the most productive starting duo.
Of course, with potential instant-impact freshmen Adoree' Jackson, Jonathan Lockett, John Plattenburg and Lamont Simmons all set to arrive this summer, the upcoming slate of spring practice sessions will almost certainly serve as just the first phase of a lengthy competition at cornerback that will extend through fall camp. Without those blue-chippers around to steal valuable reps, the March and April workouts will be crucial for the candidates currently on the roster to make a lasting impression on the new staff.
Josh Shaw, who started 11 games at cornerback in 2013, stands out as a virtual lock at one of the spots, but with an influx of talent on the way, might we see him make the move back to his more natural free safety position? With Su’a Cravens, Leon McQuay III and Gerald Bowman -- who is coming off shoulder surgery -- serving as the only other scholarship safeties, there is certainly a lack of depth back there, so a potential switch for Shaw seems to make sense. Having proven himself as the team’s most dependable cover man last fall, however, the USC staff might not have the luxury of making that change unless other cornerbacks prove that they can be counted on.
The primary starter on the other side in 2013 was Kevon Seymour, now entering his junior season. The Pasadena (Calif.) Muir product had his ups and downs, but he did cap off his season with an outstanding performance in USC’s Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl victory over Fresno State. The big question now is, was that an anomaly or just the beginning of something special? The answer will likely determine whether or not he remains atop the depth chart in the long run.
Fifth-year senior Anthony Brown has flashed at times, but he has never been able to put it all together on a consistent basis. A veteran with six starts to his credit, it looked like 2013 was going to be his season to make a name for himself. But he suffered a knee injury in the team’s opener at Hawaii that would keep him on the sideline for almost the entire season. He actually returned to start against Notre Dame, but his injury hampered his outing, and he wouldn’t see the field again for the remainder of the season. Standing 5-foot-9 and weighing 180 pounds, he lacks the size of some of his counterparts, but he makes up for that with his speed and quickness. It hasn’t been announced whether or not he’ll be available to practice this spring, but if he is, he'll be in the mix.
Devian Shelton is another player whose status for the spring is still unknown after having foot surgery this past fall, but he too, could factor heavily into the discussion if healthy. Listed at 6-1, he gives the Trojans a taller look, but having redshirted as a freshman, and then missing almost all of 2013, he still lacks experience. Impressing at times last fall in camp with his size, he could even conceivably make the transition back to safety -- where he saw time in high school
One of the more interesting names to keep an eye on is Chris Hawkins. Could this be the time when he emerges from anonymity into a major contributor? A highly touted Class of 2013 prospect, he spent his first season on campus learning the tricks of the trade while redshirting. Although somewhat raw, he showed plenty of ability in practice, especially as the season wore on. If his development continues on its forward path, there’s reason to believe that he has the skills to push for playing time.
Ryan Henderson and Ryan Dillard are two more contenders who have seen limited action in the past in reserve roles. Henderson’s athleticism is undeniable -- he was the 2010 SPARQ Rating National Champion -- but so far that hasn’t translated over to the football field at USC. Dillard, meanwhile, is a walk-on who has certainly held his own, but he would still appear to be somewhat of a longshot. This spring will mark an important time for both players as they attempt to make a move up the depth chart for the first time.