When Christian Thomas played defensive end at Highland High in Palmdale, Calif., he had a very clear set of instructions.
"My defensive coaches said, ‘I want you to line up here and rush the quarterback. That's all I want you to do. I don't want you to do nothing else.'"
Now that the true freshman is adding depth to a thin crop of ends for USC, not all that much has changed.
"Monte Kiffin has been giving me tips," Thomas said. "Get in your sprinter stance, get away from the tackle and hit the quarterback."
For Thomas, expected to challenge for time at the muddled tight end spot, it doesn't matter where he lines up.
"I think it's positive for me," he said. "It helps me get on the field faster. If I can get a chance to play, I'll play anywhere."
His biggest challenge might be size. While weighing in at 233 pounds is plenty for a college tight end, "the defensive linemen call me a lightweight," Thomas said.
USC got a scare Tuesday when safety T.J. McDonald injured his ankle during special teams work, but later returned to practice.
With Drew McAllister sidelined by a hip injury, the Trojans have just three available upperclassmen at safety. After that, freshmen Demetrius Wright and Dion Bailey would have to enter the fray.
McDonald said that puts added pressure on himself and fellow starting safety Jawanza Starling to work through those limited numbers.
"We are both pushing each other to finish," McDonald said. "The camp breaks in five days, four days, so we just are going hard. We can't think about it in that sense and we can't think about getting tired because we're not in a situation where we can be tired. We just got to push through it."
While Starling was a revelation during spring drills, it was a tougher road for McDonald, son of former USC and NFL safety Tim McDonald. He struggled at times, but has performed well ahead of the season opener at Hawaii.
"I just know what I'm doing," said McDonald of his improvement. "I know our defense real well, but I'm learning everyday. I'm definitely getting a better feel for what I'm doing out here and the game is really slowing down for me."
And while the front seven is regarded as a major strength, McDonald and Starling have to replace four-year starter Taylor Mays and other veteran defensive backs. McDonald has embraced the challenge of being the perceived weak links.
"Great players leave every year," he said. "We got great players here before us and we got to pick up the slack."
-TE Xavier Grimble (ankle), DT Hebron Fangupo (shoulder) and OL Zack Heberer (concussion) and Michael Reardon (hip) left practice early.
-LB Malcolm Smith and Wright each recorded interceptions during the team period.
-The Trojans were sent off Howard Jones Field and back through Goux's Gate after a lethargic start to practice.
"After about the first 15 minutes, we sent them back out to restart practice," Kiffin said. "For whatever reason, from that point forward especially the defense really locked in.
Kiffin said it was important to avoid such lapses in concentration during the latter stages of fall camp.
"They were just being normal, just going through the motions," he said. "There wasn't great attention to detail. That middle of the camp part, as a coach, your fear is if you let that set in, it becomes your mentality. We got it corrected."