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USC football: Sorting out the safeties

The safety position remains an intriguing one for USC.

Sophomores T.J. McDonald (far right) and Jawanza Starling emerged as the starters coming out of spring practice — but they won’t go unchallenged in the fall, and they aren’t playing the positions many of us expected.

Let’s starter with the latter. As Trojans coach Lane Kiffin explained it, the traditional roles we associate with strong and free safeties are reversed in Monte Kiffin’s defense. So even though McDonald is more of an in-the-box hitter and Starling a rangy center fielder, McDonald is the free safety and Starling the strong.

(It’s just semantics, but for football nerds like me, it’s interesting.)

“Our free safety is actually down more,” Lane Kiffin said. “So the old thing you’re used to seeing, the strong safety (being) the box player, really doesn’t fit in our system. If you go back, John Lynch was actually a free safety, but y’all probably thought of him as a strong safety.

“T.J. seems to be a big hitter and more of a box player. Jawanza has more range back there and (is) more of a classic middle-third player. We will continue to evaluate that. If they are very similar, then it doesn’t matter obviously. But if there’s a big difference, like we think there could be (from) what we see so far, Jawanza would be back more.”

Redshirt freshman Byron Moore, who’s transitioning from cornerback to safety, is listed as Starling’s backup. But the competition will intensify in the fall when Drew McAllister (hip) and Patrick Hall (knee) return from injuries at strong safety, and Marshall Jones (neck) comes back at free. (Freshman Dion Bailey also will be in the mix at free safety.)

Given McAllister’s experience and ball-hawking skills, it’d be nice to get him on the field somehow. It could happen in nickel situations.

Kiffin said safety Eric Berry played the nickel-corner role for Tennessee last season, so the coaches are open to that possibility. The other top candidates for nickel duty are cornerbacks T.J. Bryant and Brian Baucham.


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