Redshirt junior Chris Hawkins is headed back to the starting lineup it appears.
After starting the first three games, Hawkins was relegated to a safety rotation with Marvell Tell III while Leon McQuay III moved from the nickel back spot to the other safety spot. Jonathan Lockett was thrust into the starting nickel role after playing only 26 total snaps in the first three games. Since the lineup changes, the defense has played better and the Trojans have won four straight.
But Lockett has been banged up and unable to finish two of the last three games. After suffering a hip injury against California, he has been ruled out for this week and the Trojans have chosen to go with a more experienced secondary by moving Hawkins back into the starting lineup and McQuay back to the nickel spot rather than going with either Ajene Harris or John Plattenburg, who both took reps in the slot nickel role last week after Lockett’s injury.
For Hawkins, that presents a reunion with Tell after the two had previously been regularly subbing in for one another throughout the last five games.
“There’s not really too many changes,” Hawkins said. “We all know the same communication back there. It's like going back to the first three games of the season. I'm familiar with Marvel like the back of my hand. He's one of the guys that I've been playing with since last year.”
Hawkins and Tell played side-by-side for a good portion of the Arizona game after McQuay suffered a hip injury of his own and left the game. In the second half last week, USC rotated the safety trio some allowing Hawkins and Tell to get 13 more side-by-side plays along with one snap together in the first half.
“We've had some time in the last game to really get to know each other and make sure that everybody knows what I'm going to do and I know what he's going to do, so that was key for us and it's going to be key moving forward,” Hawkins said.
During the first three games of the season, there were communication issues that led to some big busts in the secondary. According to Hawkins, that will be the key for him playing beside Tell once again.
“Maintaining communication. I'll be the guy that really gets the communication going in the backend. We have to make sure...everybody knows their calls, so we don't have any busts in coverage,” Hawkins said. “I'm expecting a whole lot of fans to be there, but we just have to communicate.
“We're in November. We've got to take it game by game and try to go undefeated in November and I think if our defense communicates, if everybody communicates, we'll do that.”
Though the Trojans have suffered a couple of injuries recently in the secondary, they, for once, have the depth to fill in the holes. While most other teams are struggling with losing players to injury, USC actually recently had Plattenburg return and make his season debut.
The young Trojans have made strides in their games and we’ve seen more of first-year defensive backs Jack Jones and Harris (first year as a DB) filling in while USC also has talented reserves Ykili Ross and Pie Young waiting in the wings.
“It's the 'next man up' mentality,” Hawkins said. “All of our guys are dogs and they're all ready to go. Ajene is ready to go at any time. Platt is fully healthy again, so he's ready to go at any time. Jack Jones is eager to get on the field, so he's ready to go at any time too.
“When you've got dudes like that and Matt Lopes as well -- he's one of the smartest guys on the team — when you've got moving parts like that that can really come in and you don't miss a step, it's easy for a defense to [plug in a new guy] and keep it pushing.”
Watch Chris Hawkins, above, talk about his returning to the starting lineup and his reunion with Marvell Tell III in the defensive backfield, how the secondary has adapted and how different USC is from the beginning of the season.
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