USC Football Practice Notes: Three-man rotation as safety depth dwindles

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

USC football will use a three-man rotation at safety against Texas as depth at the position reaches concerning levels, prompting a position change.

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Going into the 2018 season, safety looked like a position of great depth for USC football. A lot has changed in less than a month.

Two projected starters have been sidelined since the end of August, Bubba Bolden due to an undisclosed personal issue and Ykili Ross due to a desire to transfer. Their replacement, Isaiah Pola-Mao, suffered a shoulder injury against Stanford and will miss the Texas game and potentially longer.

USC has been left with just three scholarship safeties to work with: Marvell Tell, C.J. Pollard and Talanoa Hufanga.

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The lineup has been hit so hard that cornerback Chase Williams was moved over to fill a role in practice this week.

While Tell and Hufanga have worked with the first team, Pollard and Williams have filled roles with the second unit.

Should USC fans expect to see Williams take the field against Texas? Probably not. Head coach Clay Helton said the Trojans plan to deploy a three-man rotation this week as Williams gets up to speed in his new position.

“Chase is learning right now,” Helton said after practice on Wednesday. “We’re trying to speed it up as fast as possible.”

Given the misfortune USC has already faced at the position, contingency plans must be in place for more rain to fall.

Though Williams will certainly be an option, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast floated another break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option. USC’s nickelbacks could be in play if another injury hits.

The calls and responsibilities of the nickelbacks are very similar to that of the safeties, Pendergast explained, so he has confidence that Ajene Harris or Jonathan Lockett could fill in if needed. Harris in particular has been credited for his knowledge of the defense as a whole. The defensive coordinator joked he could play nose guard for the Trojans if they really needed him.

With any luck, USC won’t have to turn to those extreme options.

An already fortunate turn of events has been the play of the two stand-in safeties, Pollard and Hufanga. Buried on the depth chart to start the year, both acquitted themselves well against UNLV and Stanford. The former had a key pass breakup in Week 1 and came up for a big tackle for loss in Week 2.

“I can’t give them credit enough for having the opportunities to go in there and make plays,” Helton said. “They’re going to have to do it again this week.”

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The head coach highlighted two keys for the safeties. The first is just doing their job.

“As soon as you try to do a little bit more than your job, then you’re chasing something and there goes a route down the field,” Helton said. “You have so many good players around you. If you just focus on your job, hold your gap, defend your man in the pass game, everybody else will too.”

The talented players around Pollard and Hufanga are the other key. Helton referenced the importance of senior figures like Tell, Harris and cornerback Iman Marshall on Saturday. Their ability to communicate with the two and keep them on the right page should be a help.

Practice Standouts

  1. Velus Jones Jr…. The slot receiver caught a long touchdown pass from JT Daniels going against the first team defense and was an active figure throughout practice.
  2. Olaijah Griffin… Griffin jumped a Matt Fink pass during 7-on-7 and took the interception  to the house. Funnily enough, Helton shouted praise for the play, but mistook his freshman cornerback for starter Greg Johnson, whose No. 9 jersey is similar enough to Griffin’s No. 4 for the gaff to be forgiven.
  3. Malik Dorton… The senior defensive lineman, who had a bright outing against Stanford, continued to trend upward on Wednesday with a batted ball at the line of scrimmage during an 11-on-11 period featuring both first teams.

Notes and Tidbits

  • Third down pressures… On Thursday, USC paid particular attention to defending the third down zone pressures they expect to see from Texas on Saturday. The Longhorns have held opponents to under 30 percent conversions on third down and Helton noted USC’s own struggles in that department against them last year. He expects Texas to disguise coverages well, but there will be a vulnerability to exploit when they blitz. That’s something JT Daniels has been prepared for this week. “If they void zones you have to be able to find them with limited amount of time,” Helton said.
  • Four quarters without a touchdown… Going four quarters without a touchdown means “no sleep at night” for Helton, but he played down any lingering concerns over the Trojans lack of scoring against Stanford. “It’s going to break through,” he said, noting how he doesn’t want the players to put any “undo stress on themselves” over scoring early to get the monkey off their back on Saturday.
  • New punting rotation… As displayed against Stanford, USC has a new approach to the punting position. Chris Tilbey started in place of Reid Budrovich in Palo Alto and it sounds like he’ll continue in that role with his ability to get good placement on longer kicks. That doesn’t mean Budrovich will be without a job as well. He has a “knack” for pinning kicks inside the 10 yard line, Helton said, and they’ll continue to use him in those situations.
  • Offensive line improving with health… Helton isn’t concerned about his offensive line after two inconsistent weeks of play. He said he expects them to keep improving as the year goes on, especially as players get more healthy. Those include Austin Jackson, who has been dealing with an ankle sprain, Toa Lobendahn, who has missed time with a pectoral strain, and Chuma Edoga, who has been bugged by a sore hip.
  • Offensive line adjustments… The biggest concern for the offensive line going into the Texas game is figuring out exactly what defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will throw at them. The Longhorns change what they do defensively from week to week, making them difficult to gameplan against. That’ll make in-game adjustments key. “We’ve got to be able to pick it up and draw it on the board on the sideline and be able to adjust,” Helton said.
  • Removing Gaoteote’s redshirt?… Freshman linebacker Palaie Gaoteote couldn’t participate in Week 1 as he continued to recover from knee surgery. He was in USC’s travel squad up to Stanford, but didn’t participate in the game, opening the possibility of redshirt plans for the former five-star. Except that doesn’t seem to be in the cards for Helton. The head coach praised Gaoteote for his play since his return from injury and said he would feature on special teams for the Trojans this week and beyond.