USC football brings back one half of dynamic duos at safety and cornerback. Will that be enough to keep the secondary on an upward trajectory?
The Trojans will have a hard time truly replacing Talanoa Hufanga. Fortunately, transfers and top-level recruiting should help bridge the gap.
Buy the USC secondary thanks to an influx of talent
With Hufanga leaving for the NFL, it was hugely beneficial for Isaiah Pola-Mao to return for his redshirt senior season. Instead of starting from scratch at safety, the Trojans have a veteran leader to build around.
Pola-Mao didn't reach Hufanga's All-American level in 2020. However, he was a solid starter who can still take that next step. Even if USC gets another season out of him like this past one, they'll have little to worry about.
The fact remains the Trojans have an irreplaceable figure to replace in Hufanga.
Transfer Xavion Alford is the most intriguing of the options to follow in Hufanga's footsteps. He transferred from Texas after appearing in four games in 2020 as a reserve. He has a high ceiling as a former Top 150 recruit but may still need to develop.
Chase Williams, who served as the backup to Pola-Mao in 2020 and has five games of starting experience in his career, is a known quantity USC could turn to.
Perhaps this is the time for Briton Allen or freshman newcomers Calen Bullock and Xamarion Gordon, who will have their chance to make a push for early playing time since both are spring enrollees.
There's a similar situation at cornerback where Olaijah Griffin is gone to the NFL while starter Chris Steele returns.
Steele should give USC fans some confidence as a returning starter, even if his physicality gets him into trouble at times.
Fortunately, there's a ready-made replacement for Griffin in Isaac Taylor-Stuart. He's coming back from an injury that limited his involvement in the 2020 season. It's been a little while, and injuries have taken their toll, but Taylor-Stuart was as promising a prospect at cornerback as Griffin in the first place.
If ITS isn't up to the task, the Trojans can turn to a battalion of reserves and recruits. Dorian Hewett and Jayden Williams backed up the CB spot last year, while Ceyair Wright, Prophet Brown and Jaylinn Smith could also have their say in the competition.
At nickelback, things are more clear. Veteran Greg Johnson is back along with exciting backup Max Williams and reliable reserve Kaulana Makaula.
Put it all together and USC has three returning starters for five DB spots and more than enough competition available in the two open places. Whoever steps in is unlikely to match Hufanga and Griffin's impact fully, but the rising tide of the secondary should lift all boats. Donte Williams and Craig Naivar have done too good of a job recruiting to expect a major step back.