USC Football 2016 Preview: Breaking Down the Cornerbacks


USC football boasts two of the best cornerbacks on the west, but the unit as a whole must show improvement in 2016 for the defense to thrive.

Entering Fall Camp, USC football might be as strong at the cornerback position as they have been in years. But there are still concerns to work out before the unit can truly shine.

Underachievement and rumored tension between defensive backs coach Keith Heyward and multiple players put a damper on the group last season.

This year the Trojans return with Clancy Pendergast, a defensive coordinator with experience coaching defensive backs and Ronnie Bradford, an assistant who helped Louisiana Tech excel at nabbing turnovers.

Bradford and Pendergast will look to turn continue to mine the inherent potential in their two stars while strengthening depth with a core of young, promising players.

Who’s back: Adoree’ Jackson (JR), Isaiah Langley (SO), Jonathan Lockett (JR), Iman Marshall (SO)

Who’s gone: Kevon Seymour

Who’s new: Ajene Harris (RS-SO), Jack Jones, Keyshawn “Pie” Young

All the Talent…

There was no denying the talent of the USC cornerback unit in 2015.

Adoree Jackson was named an All-Pac-12 first team defensive back by the conference, the AP and Phil Steele. Steele also listed him as a third team All-American at corner.

SEE MORE: How Can Adoree’ Jackson Win the Heisman?

Iman Marshall was recognized as a USA Today and Sporting News Freshman All-American first teamer. His three interceptions put him in the Top 20 in the conference while his ten deflections was Top 10 in the Pac-12.

Even Kevon Seymour, whose role was reduced unexpectedly, has garnered rave reviews for his ability this offseason with the Buffalo Bills, who drafted him in the sixth round.

…But All the Hiccups

With Seymour stuck firmly in the doghouse, USC relied on an exceedingly youthful group of cornerbacks who equal parts prone to mistakes and hung out to dry by an inconsistent defensive front.

It’s generally agreed that Jackson suffered a sophomore slump, but circumstances contributed to that in a number of ways.

Balancing offensive and special teams duties from the get-go, Jackson also shifted into a safety role on occasion, even starting in that position once.

The inability of the defensive line to generate organic pressure required more blitzes, which led to more man coverage, which led to more breakdowns as injuries took their toll across the safety and linebacker positions.

SEE MORE: Adoree’ Jackson To Focus On Defense, Returns In 2016

Marshall dealt with the hiccups you would expect from a freshman and drew his fair share of penalties for being overly physical with opposition receivers.

As a result, USC’s pass defense was in the bottom half of the conference in just about every measure.

Where Do They Go From Here?

The Trojans enter 2016 with potentially one of the best cornerback groups in the Pac-12.

Jackson and Marshall could certainly could make a claim to being among the top starters at cornerback in the conference.

Both will have to answer questions this season about just how high their ceilings can be. With NFL GMs paying close attention to Jackson’s progress, he’ll need to continue to progress as a pure cornerback.

For Marshall, there was plenty of promise in 2015 but he’ll need to prove he can cut out the penalties and refine his game enough to stick with the best.

USC’s spring camp also demonstrated how tenuous a concept depth can be in football.

SEE MORE: 5 Takeaways From USC’s 2016 Spring Camp

With Jackson focusing on track, the Trojans had to rely on walk ons to take first and second team reps as Isaiah Langley and Jonathan Lockett each dealt with minor knocks.

Such depth problems saw wide receiver Ajene Harris switch over to give the defense an extra body.

An injury or two could prove costly to the Trojans during the season.

There’s also the matter of Langley’s legal troubles.

The sophomore looked primed for an increased role in the defensive rotation with a strong finish to the season and good showing during the spring. However, he was arrested at a UCLA frat party and has been suspended for the season opener against Alabama.

Whether or not that misstep will affect his participation after his suspension is served remains to be seen.

Figuring Out No. 3

There’s no question that Jackson and Marshall will hold the two starting cornerback spots in 2016.

The intrigue surrounding the cornerback position revolves around the rest of the rotation and who will emerge as the successor to Seymour.

Lockett was exceptional throughout fall camp last year but his 2015 season never quite got off the ground after starting the first two games in place of Seymour, who was injured. The junior himself dealt with multiple injuries throughout the season and missed time this spring with a concussion.

If he gets back to full speed, Lockett will be expected to battle for the nickle spot in the rotation.

Competing with Lockett for that spot are Langley, the converted receiver Harris and incoming freshmen like Jack Jones and Keyshawn “Pie” Young.

SEE MORE: Projecting USC’s 2016 Starting Lineup

Langley benefited from Lockett’s absence last season and progressed quickly as a freshman. Now entering his second year he’ll be in contention for even more playing time.

Harris’ switch from receiver isn’t officially permanent, but with so much depth in that position there’s reason to believe he will remain on defense. Of course it goes further than just positional need — Harris took to the position like a fish to water and may climb the depth chart as a result.

As for the first year players, Jones has the potential to be the latest true freshman corner to earn major playing time while Young will likely have to bide his time, unless depth becomes a concern.

Building the positional dynasty

Unlike his predecessors, Jack Jones won’t be called up on to start as a freshman, short of injuries to Jackson or Marshall.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have breakout potential to establish himself as the Trojans’ No. 3 option at cornerback.

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Considering the pass-happy tendencies of the Pac-12 and the considerable expectations tied to Jones, USC’s defense would be elevated considerably if he lived up to the hype.

SEE MORE: What To Expect From Jack Jones

In 2014 Jackson accomplished that in the first month of the season. Marshall emerged as a starter by the second game his freshman campaign in 2015.

Jones has as much potential as the other two, with pure athleticism at his disposal and the instincts to compete at the highest levels.

It would be a surprise if he stayed out of the limelight.