The USC Trojans lost would-be starting strongside linebacker Jabari Ruffin this week to a torn ligament in his knee.
It’s a big blow for Troy, but head coach Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox may have an the ace up their sleeve, as they try to fill the void.
Cravens, a sophomore safety recorded a four interceptions and 53 total tackles in 13 games that earned him accolades among freshmen last season.
The 6-foot-1, 225 pounder got some reps at strongside linebacker in a nickel defense for the first time in fall camp on Saturday. Afterword, Sarkisian opened up about the possibilities of him playing there this season.
“It varies on who our opponent’s going to be,” Sarkisian told the media.
“If we play the Stanfords or the Oregon States of the word –the more traditional teams– I think we’re going to see Su’a back playing the traditional safety spot,” said Sarkisian.
“I think he likes being around the ball, and this way allows us to get him involved in the action against teams that warrant it. Those spread teams that put a lot of receivers on the field allow us to use his versatility.”The move isn’t a new one to Sarkisian or Wilcox.
While at Washington, safety Shaq Thompson was transitioned from being a roving nickel as freshman, to a linebacker as a sophomore.
Both Thompson and Cravens have been lauded for their awareness on the football field, and Cravens had long been mentioned as candidate to be a converted linebacker, even when he committed to USC two years ago under Monte Kiffin.
Cravens acknowledged the connection himself on Saturday. Though he told Max Meyer of Neon Tommy that he seems himself as a bit more of a safety.
“It’s a luxury we have with him”, said Sarkisian. “He’s such a versatile guy with a very high football IQ.”
For USC fans, the move to strongside linebacker in certain packages is going to appear similar to the play of Dion Bailey in 2013 under Clancy Pendergast.
While Bailey moved from being a 4-3 outside linebacker to a nickelback safety, he was more often than not a hybrid rover. He allowed the defense to transform from a 5-2, to a 3-3-5, and even a 1-5-5 as deployed against air raid offenses like that of Cal and Fresno State.
Cravens will allow the Trojans to do those same things in 2014, as well as open up the field to other players.
Should he play up as a strongside linebacker, it could mean more playing time for safeties Gerald Bowman and John Plattenburg, in addition two-way freshman JuJu Smith, who is trying to find a home.
Smith could ultimately wind up playing behind Cravens as a nickel in specific packages, if he doesn’t start out as a receiver.
All in all, Cravens moving around the defense should do nothing but help the Trojans.
That is, if he’s cool with it.
“I’m still a safety”, Cravens told the media, via Michael Lev. “But when they need me to play linebacker I’ll play linebacker. Whatever it takes to win.”
That’s all you need to hear.