Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
After previewing the cornerbacks and detailing how it’s a position short on experienced depth, it’s time to turn our attention towards another position group that is in a similar state.
Outside of the quarterback position, who the starting safeties will be is perhaps the most crucial roster-based problem the Trojans face. The quarterback position is undeniably of the utmost importance, but defense wins championships.
Gone are former starters T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling, and in are… well, no one is exactly sure just yet.
A sign of how fluid the situation is, the post-spring depth chart revealed no concrete answers as to who the starters would be as both safety positions were designated with an “OR”.
Adding intrigue to the situation, the two players listed as co-starters for the free and strong safety positions are heralded freshmen Leon McQuay III and Su’a Cravens, who both graduated from high school early in order to participate in spring practice at USC.
Whether or not there is any significance to it, the names listed before the “OR”, and hence at the top of the depth chart at their respective safety position are Demetrius Wright (free safety) and Josh Shaw (strong safety).
Shaw’s play last season has earned himself consideration for significant playing time again this year. However, to this point, Shaw has been utilized most as a cornerback, and whether or not he remains at the strong safety position is something to keep an eye on; he may be more valuable as a corner.
Dion Bailey, who has been moved back to strong safety from linebacker, found himself at the bottom of the depth chart, though due to having to sit out of spring practice because of injury and not performance. He is expected to recover in time for fall camp and figures to play a prominent role in the defense. What exactly that means for the pecking order at strong safety once the season begins remains to be seen.
Prior to tearing his meniscus, Cravens, who was widely considered the top 2013 prospect in the state of California, had been living up to the hype with stellar performances in spring practices and by most accounts couldn’t, or shouldn’t be kept of the field come fall. Though with Cravens, there have been indications he may primarily be used in nickel package situations. If Cravens is a good as advertised, he can be productive for the Lane Kiffin and Clancy Pendergast, who would have to play such a dynamic athlete.
As for the free safety position, McQuay III is listed as the co-starter, but Gerald Bowman is also expected to compete for playing time. Like Bailey, Bowman missed spring practice due to injury and the result is reflected on the current depth chart. If Wright is to earn the starting spot, he figures to be a more than viable option given his time spent playing as a reserve safety and on special teams for the past three seasons.
Once everyone is healthy, USC will presumably have a core rotation of Bailey, Bowman, Shaw, and Wright at the two safety positions. Kiffin may opt to redshirt one, or both Cravens and McQuay III, with the decision likely to be dictated by injuries and/or the win-loss columns. However, it would be premature to rule out Shaw potentially moving back to corner and should that occur, Cravens appears to be next player added to the mix.
And of course with limited depth, there’s the obligatory “if there are injuries” scenario, in which case all bets would be off and it would then come down to evaluating what healthy bodies remain and playing those who would best help the team succeed.