Oct. 22, 2011; South Bend, IN, USA; USC Trojans cornerback Nickell Robey (21) breaks up a pass intended for Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Michael Floyd (3) in the first quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE
So far, we have examined two factions of the USC football team—the offensive line and the running backs—that can use all the help they can get in terms of prepping for the upcoming season. Now, let’s look at the last group that is still kind of questionable, and probably will be going into fall camp: the cornerbacks.
For a team with significant depth issues, USC has managed to make it work across all positions, and the cornerback corps is no exception. The Trojans really only had one fully healthy, experienced DB for the entire season in Nickell Robey, and man, did Robey hold it down in the back field. Nickell “Zero Tolerance Policy” Robey—a moniker I gave him last season for his knack for shutting down the Pac-12’s top receivers—did a fine job of keeping USC out of trouble in long yard situations. Though he didn’t have nearly as many INTs this season as he did during his freshman year—that year he led the team in picks with nine and this season he only had two—his presence in the secondary was always felt. His small stature has been commented on many a time—he is all of five-feet-seven inches on a good day—but he plays with so much heart and he jams receivers that are twice his size like it ain’t no thang. ZTP is USC’s most consistent, most experienced cornerback, and there is no question that he will ball out this season.
The questions more so revolve around who is going to hold it down at the other cornerback position. Last season, Torin Harris, Anthony Brown, Tony Burnett and Isiah Wiley all had stints at the position, but none really had the time they needed to establish themselves. At the beginning of the season, Harris was deemed the started but was soon sidelined because of a leg injury. Even before he got hurt, Harris was never exceptional in coverage, often getting caught up in cross routes. He was a pretty solid tackler though, something else that the Trojan defense as a unit has struggled with. When he got hurt, Burnett kind of took over at the position and is much better in coverage than Harris. His drawback? He’s not a great tackler, so plays that could’ve easily been held to just a few yards all of a sudden became big gains because of bad tackling.
Then there was redshirt freshman Anthony Brown. Brown came out fiery, making big, explosive plays and complimenting Robey extremely well. But again, the clouds opened up on USC and in the team’s victory over Cal, Brown broke his foot and was done for the season. That meant newly acquired Juco transfer Isiah Wiley had to be called up to fill the spot. Wiley did a pretty decent job holding down the fort once he got up to speed, but it took him a minute. Even with the riveting game of Musical Cornerbacks, USC managed to rotate them in an out as seamlessly as possible, and to improve drastically in coverage as a unit from the season before. During the first year of the Kiffin Era, it seemed as if allowing plays of 10 yards or more was just the thing to do for the USC defense. It was almost guaranteed that if a USC was facing a team that had a QB with an arm, and if USC had a lead late in the fourth quarter but the other team had the opportunity to score again, the defense would fall apart, a big play would happen, and tragedy would strike Trojan Nation. Last season, there was no such fear as the Tampa-2 defense came together much more effectively.
So now, going into the fall the question still remains—who is going to play opposite of Nickell Robey? As of now there is no clear-cut starter, but I would venture to guess that it will be between Torin Harris and Anthony Brown. These two guys had the most success at the position, and are the most capable of stifling opposing offenses on USC’s road to Miami. Brown is the more complete package; he has the size, the speed, and the grit to get after it, play after play. On the other hand, Harris is entering his senior year and it might make sense to start him so as to preserve Brown for when the defense is depleted of talent once the 2012 season is over.
The cornerbacks as a unit need to spent a lot of time between now and August really working on fundamentally sound tackling, and knowing the coverage in their sleep. The Pac-12 is definitely a quarterbacks conference, and any slip-ups in the backfield will make it that much harder for USC’s hopes of post season glory to come to fruition. As we have seen though, the Trojans are like Houdini when it comes to making something out of nothing, so rest assured that by the time kickoff of the 2012 season rolls around, USC will be ready for any and all opponents.
One last thing to note: USC’s spring game is fast approaching, which will give fans the first glimpse of what the 2012 USC football team will look like, so keep an eye out for the date and time of that event!