Stats: 13 games played, 110 tackles (54 solo, 56 assisted), 2 interceptions, 1.0 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3 passes broken up, 1 kick blocked
What stood out: T.J. McDonald had a ton of new roles in 2012, as Monte Kiffin put the senior safety at linebacker and even as a stand-up defensive end at times, in hopes of using his athleticism to make plays. His versatility worked in allowing McDonald to lead the team in tackles and gave him a career-high 6.5 tackles for loss, plus McDonald may have had the defensive highlight of the year in an interception of Zach Maynard, which showcased his capabilities in a nutshell. When he’s put in coverage as a free safety, his strength is his vision and physicality in the secondary, two traits that pushed him towards his new roles.
What needed work: Like with Taylor Mays before him, McDonald’s senior season ended without him taking a big leap toward becoming a dominant player, or a game-changer in the secondary. McDonald was used less in coverage than before, which is a big reason for him not rising to the occasion. He wound up being more of a tackle machine than a defensive playmaker, as when the Trojans were getting beat defensively, McDonald was there to make a bevy of tackles. He averaged three more tackles per game in losses than wins, a sign that the Trojans were continuously allowing plays to reach the second and third levels of the defense, which lessened USC’s chances to win games.
Final word: McDonald had a fine career at USC, and a solid season in 2012. He just didn’t take the step towards being an All-American or Thorpe winner as people expected, and despite being a team captain, he didn’t seem to be the on-field commander of the USC defense.