USC Football: Best-case, worst-case at cornerback in 2017

Jan 2, 2017; Pasadena, CA, USA; USC Trojans defensive back Iman Marshall (8) celebrates an interception against the Penn State Nittany Lions in the first quarter of the 2017 Rose Bowl game at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 2, 2017; Pasadena, CA, USA; USC Trojans defensive back Iman Marshall (8) celebrates an interception against the Penn State Nittany Lions in the first quarter of the 2017 Rose Bowl game at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports /

With two former five-stars on deck, USC Football boasts tons of potential at cornerback. But replacing Adoree’ Jackson raises plenty of questions.

There is a chance USC Football is entering a golden age of cornerbacks, following the undeniable success of Adoree’ Jackson’s Trojan career. But whether or not that chance becomes a reality is tied to how well USC adjusts to life without Jackson this coming season.

The Trojans have the talent, but their ability to put it all together remains to be seen.

So here’s a look at the best- and worst-case scenarios at cornerback in 2017:

Best-case scenario

The line of cornerback succession passes on without a hitch.

It all started when five-star cornerback Adoree’ Jackson committed to the Trojans in 2014, setting off a cascade of recruiting success at the position which mirrored USC’s previous success at wide receiver.

The key to the Trojans receiver strength was in the transition, with Robert Woods giving way to Marqise Lee, who gave way to Nelson Agholor, who gave way to JuJu Smith-Schuster.

USC will hope that a similar line of succession plays out as Jackson gives way to Iman Marshall, and so on.

Biggie has served in Jackson’s shadow for two years and now the show is his.

As a five-star recruit coming out of high school, Marshall has the talent level to fill Jackson’s shoes. He’s already proven himself as a freshman All-American first-teamer and a sophomore All-American honorable mention. In 2016, he earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention status.

If he takes the next step as USC’s No. 1 corner, Marshall could establish himself as one of the top defensive backs in the conference, if not the nation, as a junior.

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But that’s only one side of the Trojans’ best-case scenario in the secondary. A successful transition from Jackson to Marshall also requires a successful transition from Marshall to Jack Jones as USC’s No. 2 corner.

Jones saw action as a freshman, but the traits that made him a five-star recruit proved raw in Year 1. Further refining should turn Jones into a reliable defender across from Marshall.

With the two following a similar trajectory, the Trojans would have a secondary capable of handling the potent passing offenses of the Pac-12 with solid depth provided by the likes of Jonathan Lockett, Isaiah Langley and Ajene Harris.

Worst-case scenario

Marshall can’t handle the No. 1 job and Jones’ development stalls.

Replacing a Thorpe Award winner is no easy task, even if you’ve got two five-star prospects waiting in the wings. Those five-star recruits still need to prove themselves as five-star players. The fear for USC in 2017 is the possibility neither Marshall or Jones rise to the occasion.

Marshall’s size and physicality can be an asset, but there is a reason many have called for the 6-foot-1 corner to be moved to safety, where his flexibility and fluidity would be less of a concern. Now that Jackson is gone, he will be called upon to shadow each opponent’s top receiver, upping the level of difficulty that much further.

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When it comes to Jones, the concern is all mental. As much athleticism as Jones brings to the table, if he can’t understand his role in the defense then none of that will matter. Missed assignments have devastating consequences in USC’s defensive scheme and on more than one occasion in 2016, Jones appeared well out of his depth assignment-wise.

The less defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast feels that he can rely upon his cornerbacks to handle their coverage, the less aggressive he can be with the defense, front to back. And USC’s defense is at it’s best when it’s at its most aggressive.

Most-likely scenario

USC’s cornerback group is certain to take a step back in 2017.

That’s not to say that Marshall, Jones and company can’t form a capable unit this season, but losing Jackson is certain to leave a major hole that is unlikely to be filled.

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Having said that, the Trojans have strong potential and good depth to build around.

Marshall may not reach Jackson’s heights, but he’s already established a level at USC that can be trusted.

The bigger issue is Jones, who has a longer way to come before matching Marshall’s performance as the No. 2 corner last year, mostly due to inexperience.

Fortunately, USC shouldn’t have to lean entirely on Jones, with Lockett, Langley and Harris all capable of stepping in if Jones needs more time to continue developing.

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In the end, USC is likely to field a solid cornerback unit with elite potential shining through at times. It may not be the greatest strength of the defense, but it shouldn’t be the weak link.