USC Football 2016 Preview: Breaking Down the Safeties

Sep 26, 2015; Tempe, AZ, USA; Southern California Trojans safety Chris Hawkins (4) against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 26, 2015; Tempe, AZ, USA; Southern California Trojans safety Chris Hawkins (4) against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

If there’s one position that has USC football feeling simultaneously optimistic and uncertain going into 2016, it’s safety.

USC football enters fall camp with plenty of certainties and uncertainties. The safety unit falls into both categories.

As far as uncertainties go, the position is far better off than the defensive line, which is replacing all three starters. There are four players with starting experience for the Trojans at safety.

But as far as certainties go, there are still many questions to be answered in a unit which was so decimated by injury in 2015 that it is hard to know what USC truly has and doesn’t have.

What they definitely have is a new defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach, which adds an equal helping of hope and intrigue.

Who’s back: Leon McQuay III (SR), John Plattenburg (JR), Chris Hawkins (RS-Jr), Matt Lopes (RS-Jr), Marvell Tell (SO), Ykili Ross (RS-Fr)

Who’s gone: No one

Who’s new: C.J. Pollard, Jamel Cook

Could Tell something was brewing in 2015

Hawkins recorded his second career interception in the season opener against Arkansas State, and finished third with 6.8 percent of all team tackles, behind only Su’a Cravens and Cam Smith.

But it was the safety position opposite of him that was the intriguing one in 2015, as then-sophomore John Plattenburg and freshman Marvell Tell each got ample opportunities to make a case for a starting job.

Tell only started twice –the Pac-12 Championship Game and the Holiday Bowl– and yet still showed plenty of promise as a first-year player, recording 36 tackles and four pass break ups on the season.

Had a midseason break of his collarbone not cost him four games, Tell could’ve been on par with Smith for the most talked about Trojan freshman on defense.

Meanwhile, Plattenburg had an up and down season that saw him start eight games and snare a pair of interceptions.

His biggest impact came in early November with Tell out injured, as he had a season-high eight tackles against Arizona, including a touchdown saving tackle on a kick return, in addition to a momentum-changing interception.

The trio of Hawkins, Plattenburg and Tell all showed glimpses of sound play.

Not quite there yet

Though Hawkins had a good showing in his first season at the position and Tell showed promise, the Trojan safeties rarely stood out.

Systemic issues and lack of depth hampered the ceiling for the position but they were just as clueless against Oregon as the rest of the defense.

USC’s entire pass defense in 2015 was disappointing, ranking in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in just about every statistical category.

SEE MORE: 5 Most Physical Players for USC in 2016

Of course, that wasn’t helped by an injury crisis which saw Su’a Cravens and Adoree’ Jackson fill in at the position at various points throughout the season.

In the end, USC’s safeties were by no means the most concerning position on the team, but they were far off being a strength for the defense.

Old faces, new faces

The Trojans return the entire safety unit for 2016, along with some reinforcements from the high school ranks.

Those safeties will all be adjusting to a new system under Clancy Pendergast, with new assignments, positions and responsibilities.

For one, Pendergast labels his safeties in an unconventional way, referring to the strong safety as the defender on the strongside of the field, instead of the one responsible for providing run support.

Thus, free safety occupies the opposite side of the field, but is not necessarily responsible for playing as the deep coverage specialist, as in most systems.

There’s also the matter of settling in with a new defensive backs coach, Ronnie Bradford, who will have to sort out a particularly blurry depth chart.

SEE MORE: Grading the Ronnie Bradford Hire

Unfortunately, Hawkins missed spring camp while recovering from surgery and Leon McQuay was unable to practice with the team because of his class schedule.

Even Plattenburg missed extended time during spring.

In that sense, the Trojans are starting from scratch this fall, trying to determine how the line up will shake out.

Shaking out the depth chart

USC ended the 2015 season with a safety pairing of Hawkins and Tell.

Going into 2016, the safe money is on that pair starting the season opener against Alabama.

Still, there is a lot to work out when it comes to the safeties.

Tell’s excellent freshman performance probably would have earned him a starting job earlier in the season if his collarbone injury hadn’t gotten in the way.

However, Plattenburg impressed as a freshman as well, earning a starting place by the end of the 2014 season. That didn’t ensure his starting place as a sophomore.

There are now heavy expectation on Tell’s shoulders and the hard-hitting safety will have to prove that he can fit into the new system before his name is penned in at free safety.

SEE MORE: Projecting USC’s 2016 Starting Lineup

Next to him, Hawkins may be on the verge of establishing himself as a defensive mainstay, taking the skills he learned as a cornerback and thriving in a deeper coverage roll. He’ll need take the next step in year two at the position while fending off challenges to his starting place.

Meanwhile, Trojan fans are still waiting for McQuay to deliver on his five-star talent coming out of high school.

However it shakes out, USC conceivably has four starting-caliber safeties for four spots, between Tell, Hawkins, Plattenburg and McQuay.

It’s just a matter of whether or not those turn out to be elite or run-of-the-mill starters.

Behind them, C.J. Pollard enjoyed more reps as an early enrollee this spring thanks to the absence of so many of his teammates. He’ll look to turn that experience into a chance to see the field as a freshman.

Fellow first-year player Jamel Cook had a set back this offseason after hurting his leg in a car accident, however, his physicality and size could see him fight for playing time as well.

The Trojans also welcome back capable walk on Matt Lopes, who was injured for much of the 2015 season but could be in the mix to play this year.

Ykili Ross ready for a breakout?

The wildcard in all of this is Ykili Ross, the redshirt freshman who famously committed to spending three years with the Trojans.

More from

After joining USC with potential to make his mark on both offense and defense, Ross’ freshman season didn’t exactly go as planned.

Dealing with an injured shoulder, Ross redshirted and has remained out this offseason thanks to surgery to fix that injury.

SEE MORE: Can Clancy Pendergast Get More Out of USC’s Defense?

Now with his body healed and a new staff to impress, Ross has a new lease on life and the potential to crash the party at safety with a break out season.

Ross’ athleticism is elite level, which could give him an shot to break into the ranks, especially since USC’s injury record at the position has not exactly been stellar.