2016 USC Football Spring Preview: Safety

Sep 5, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans safety Chris Hawkins (4) against the Arkansas State Red Wolves at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 5, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans safety Chris Hawkins (4) against the Arkansas State Red Wolves at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

USC football enters spring camp with a solid group of safeties, but questions about who will step up and establish themselves as an clear starter.

With USC football’s 2016 spring camp due to begin next week, it’s time to look forward to preparations for the new season.

USC returns the entire safety unit from 2015 while adding some new faces for the 2016 season, including a new defensive backs coach in Ronnie Bradford.

Spring camp will give Bradford the chance to sort out a crowded field of potential starters.


Departing (0): N/AReturning (5): Chris Hawkins, Leon McQuay, John Plattenburg, Ykili Ross, Marvell TellEarly Enrollees (1): C.J. PollardIncoming Freshmen (1): Jamel Cook

On a defense full of inexperience heading into the 2016 season, the safety position actually harbors some of the most experienced players USC has to offer. However, that experience does not necessarily give the position clarity.

Redshirt junior Chris Hawkins started every game for USC in 2015, finishing third on the team with 70 tackles and two interceptions. John Plattenburg started eight games finishing with 34 tackles. Leon McQuay and Marvell Tell each started two games while also missing time with injury.

Those four are each expected to battle for starting positions this spring, though all will be part of the Trojans’ rotation during the season.

Tell was a true freshman last year, but his speedy progression might have locked down a starting job by the end of the season if not for a collarbone injury holding him out. Plattenburg, who may be the surest tackler on the team, had a similar trajectory as a freshman in 2014 but his sophomore season had elements of a slump as he lost his starting place midway through.

Hawkins maintained his job throughout the season, his first as a safety after starting his career at cornerback. However, that was under former defensive backs coach Keith Heyward. His experience and reliability are a definite plus in his bid to keep his spot atop the depth chart, but he cannot afford to mail it in this spring in front of Bradford with talented youngsters nipping at his heels.

McQuay is starting even further behind. Though he earned a pair of starts over Plattenburg over the middle of the season, he has not been able to live up to his five-star billing since his arrival at USC. As the only senior at the position, it is officially do-or-die for McQuay this spring.

Ykili Ross redshirted in 2015 but he stands as another talented addition to the unit battling for a place in the rotation this spring.

Early entrant C.J. Pollard could make waves in his first taste of Trojan football, but learning to adapt to the college game will be the first hurdle to clear.

There’s also walk on safety Matt Lopes, who might have contributed greatly in 2015 if not for injury and should be a valued member of the unit in 2016.

Biggest Battle: Chris Hawkins vs. the field

Can Hawkins hold onto his starting place? That’s the big question for the Trojan secondary this spring. The converted cornerback held his own at safety in 2015, but the unit dealt with injury trouble throughout, so there were not many opportunities for him to lose his spot.

With Tell and Plattenburg a year along in their development, Hawkins must prove that he was more than a place holder last season.

Most to Gain: Ykili Ross

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After redshirting, Ross enters the fray with a year of development time himself. With a new coaching staff in place, the talented four-star recruit is the wildcard in the fray to lock down starting positions.

Most to Lose: Leon McQuay

McQuay had one of his better seasons as a Trojan as a freshman in Clancy Pendergasts defense, so perhaps a return to that system will help him finally breakout as a star player after three years of playing second fiddle.

For two springs now, McQuay has been the subject of much spring speculation but he never quite grabbed the bull by the horns and established himself. This will be his final spring and the start of his last chance to make his mark.

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