The 2016 defensive back class came together in the very end for USC.
While freshman safety C.J. Pollard was one of those rare rock solid commitments in July, the Trojans were left grinding away in January to secure the signatures of Jack Jones, Keyshawn Young and Jamel Cook.
Early on in fall camp, the freshman class of defensive backs have been somewhat quiet as well. In fact, Young wasn’t even a defensive back on the first day of practice.
“Yeah, that took people by surprise,” said USC defensive backs coach Ronnie Bradford. “But you know, we recruited him as a athlete. We do want to give him an opportunity to show what he can do on both sides of the ball.
“On the offensive side of the ball it’s all about assignments. On our side of the ball you have to know your assignment, but it’s reaction. He got a little introduction to the offense early on in camp, but now he’s taking care of business. It's coming along slow, but he has a great attitude.
“We’re throwing a lot at him. There are some guys it sticks to and then some guys who have to put their head down and grind little more to make sure they have it all in place when it’s time to come out here and execute.”
In addition to Young missing the first day of practice with the defense, he also missed several subsequent practices with a shoulder injury. That left Young sidelined with his fellow South Florida native teammate Jamel Cook, who is still recovering from a broken foot.
While Cook has yet to practice in any competitive drills, he has been fully involved vocally on the sidelines in drills.
“When he feels comfortable and the training staff feels comfortable he’ll be out here. It’s my job to make sure he knows what he’s supposed to be doing from a defensive standpoint once he steps across those white lines,” said Bradford. “Whether that be in scheme or effort to or away from a play.”
Whereas Jack Jones and C.J. Pollard are local products with friends and family at practice, Young and Cook are experiencing college life together 3,000 miles from home.
“I don’t really treat those guys any differently because for every freshman college ball is an eyeopener, said Bradford. “They’re not the only All-American on the field anymore.
“Everyone is talented and the older players know what they’re doing.”
Of the freshmen defensive backs, Jones has received the most reps. Although he may still be swimming in the defensive playbook, his aggressiveness and skill have still shown through his inexperience on the practice field for USC.
“You love the aggressiveness, but at the end of the day, it’s about the team,” said Bradford. “You don’t want to do anything that’s going to hurt the team. Whether that be celebrating, getting a penalty for taunting or getting someone else hurt.
“But as far as his moxie and swagger, you want that in a defensive back. I want a guy to have confidence in what he is doing each play inside and out.”
Obviously, Jones isn’t there yet.
“I don’t think anyone out here is there yet to be perfectly honest,” laughed Bradford. “But everybody is going to look at him and think he’s a little light for the position.
“The kid comes up and has the mentality of a safety and the speed of a corner. The kid works too. Sometimes you have to put a harness on him.
“That’s the thing with these kids at USC. If coach didn’t blow the whistle, these kids would be out here for hours working out after it was time to go. They don’t understand how that tends to wear on your body. Maybe not now, maybe not in two weeks, but in December and January.
“It’s like with a pitcher. It feels great to throw 150 pitches, but the night isn’t what their concerned about. It’s three months down the road the you start to wear down.”
C.J. Pollard is the only defensive back of the group to participate in spring football. Friday, Pollard had his first interception as a Trojan.
“C.J. has done a good job of keeping a positive attitude,” said Bradford. “We’re going to look at a lot of players and we’re getting guys a lot of reps.
“He’s been one of those guys getting an opportunity and he did a great job going up and making a play. Everyone on the sideline went crazy. He's a young kid and when he got a chance to make a play and shine, he stepped up.”
Pollard stepped up using context to his advantage.
“It was 3rd and 1 and I knew the offense didn’t have a timeout,” said Pollard. “We gt a break and right after the timeout I was at free safety, so I was reading my keys.
“I watching the slot and I saw him hesitating off the ball. I saw that on film, and once he hesitates he either breaks in or out. I just waited and Y.K. (Ykili Ross) made a phenomenal play on the ball to tip it in the air. I was right there to play a play under it.”
Pollard’s early enrollment at USC helped him develop both physically and mentally. Now 6-foot-1, 190-pounds, his big play Friday was a combination of opportunity meeting preparation.
“Just getting out here and getting established has been big,” said Pollard. “Getting use to Clancy Pendergast’s scheme has been important.
“I think Coach Clancy’s scheme just makes us better, so I give a lot of credit to that. All of the freshmen are out here developing, but his system makes us better.”
At present date Pollard is playing the free safety position behind Chris Hawkins and Marvell Tell.
“I can play both, but they have me playing single high right now,” said Pollard. “The two positions aren’t that different except the run fits. Behind down in the box playing the run, as a strong safety you’e opposite the nickel so you have to cover a bit more.”
News and notes from practice
Freshman offensive tackle E.J. Price was our Friday with the flu but returned to practice Saturday. He should be ready for Monday’s scrimmage. With Chad Wheeler limited, Price is expected to get increased reps.
Freshman linebacker Oluwole Betiku is a tremendously gifted athlete, but when it comes to lateral quickness, Connor Murphy has him beat. Despite his tall, rangy frame, Murphy moves fluidly through lateral bag drills. Murphy also catches the ball much more effortlessly.
Tyler Vaughns isn’t the biggest nor is he the fastest freshman wide receiver, but he runs the cleanest short routes and has caught the ball better than his counterparts. Deonte Burnett has displayed the teams best hands in camp, but Vaughns isn’t too far behind.
Wide receivers and defensive backs went one-on-one for an extended period this past week. Josh Imatorbhebhe continues to show surprising quickness for his size. At 200-plus pounds, Imatorbhebhe has a suddenness about his game that often surprises defensive backs off the line of scrimmage.
During this period, Jack Jones took roughly a dozen reps. While he held his own against the freshmen, Jones got head slapped off the line by De’Quan Hampton. Strength is clearly Jones biggest weakness.
Jack Jones, Velus Jones and Trevon Sidney all remain on punt return. Of the group, Jack Jones has handled the ball the best and looked the most comfortable returning kicks.
USC 2018 quarterback commit Matt Corall was at practice Friday. St. John Bosco 2020 quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei attended practice Saturday.