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McCutcheon Brings Comfort : College football: USC freshman cornerback is living up to his favorite word with his ability and knowledge of the game.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn’t the kind of play that would bring 62,000 people to their feet. It was a play maybe not even a dozen spectators at the Coliseum saw clearly last Saturday.

But USC’s coaches saw it and were still talking about it Wednesday.

Stanford led in the third quarter, 24-17. On second and five, Stanford swept left with Anthony Bookman carrying. The pulling left guard was to take out the Trojans’ right cornerback, Daylon McCutcheon.

Not much of a problem there, right? The kid’s only a freshman. And he’s only 5 feet 10, 175 pounds.

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McCutcheon recognized the play but stayed back as if he’d been fooled, then ran toward Bookman, but not at full speed. At the last instant, he cut in front of the blocker with a burst of speed and got in on the tackle with teammate Scott Fields.

Bookman’s gain? One yard.

“Daylon played possum on the play, making them think he’d been fooled, then cut right in front of that guard,” said USC secondary coach Dennis Thurman.

“It was the kind of play you can’t teach. And those are the kinds of plays Daylon makes.

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“He makes a lot of great little plays. He has a great, innate understanding of how this game is played. He has a knowledge of football that some good players never get.”

For that and a lot of other superbly executed plays, McCutcheon, 18, has been rewarded with a starting assignment Saturday at Oregon State, a game in which USC can clinch a Rose Bowl berth.

In a secondary that might be the Pac-10’s most talented, McCutcheon has beaten out a junior, Quincy Harrison.

McCutcheon came to preseason training camp last August as Coach John Robinson’s most prized recruit and hasn’t disappointed anyone. Among the highlights of any Trojan practice is the speedy McCutcheon covering one of college football’s best receivers, Keyshawn Johnson.

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McCutcheon has held his own. Johnson has beaten him, but McCutcheon has also tied Johnson in knots on occasion.

He uses the word comfortable a lot when describing his game and his future.

For example, asked this week what it’s like to cover Johnson every day in practice, he said: “At first, in preseason camp, it was frustrating, but I’m very comfortable with how I play against him now.”

And of the constant speculation he might one day be switched to offense: “I’m very comfortable with my future here as a defensive player, but if they feel they need me on offense I’d be happy to do it. I feel very comfortable anywhere on the football field.”

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But who wouldn’t feel comfortable with this guy’s tools?

He came to USC as one of the nation’s most widely recruited athletes, a two-way player from La Puente Bishop Amat.

As a tailback, McCutcheon averaged 9.1 yards a carry in rushing for 2,456 yards last season and scored 33 touchdowns. He scored 10 of his touchdowns on runs of 50 yards or more, and he had four 200-yard games.

On defense, he had eight interceptions, two for touchdowns.

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So where do you play a guy like this?

“He asked us if he could play defense when he came in and we accommodated him,” Robinson said. “He’s having a great year.”

Robinson’s secondary coach, Thurman, got the word first.

“When I was a senior, I told Coach Thurman I wanted to come in as a defensive back, because I was more comfortable with my chances of playing a lot right away,” McCutcheon said.

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Robinson, Thurman and defensive coordinator Keith Burns were comfortable with it on opening night. In the 45-7 victory over San Jose State, McCutcheon returned an interception 35 yards for a touchdown.

McCutcheon came to USC pretty much a finished product, Thurman said.

“The thing I come away with after spending time with Daylon is his understanding of how football should be played,” he said.

“He has a knowledge of it all. Sometimes I talk to him about technique stuff, fundamentals . . . he knows all that stuff. You take any college cornerback and line him up with Keyshawn every day and he’d be doing great to just hold his own. And Daylon’s done that.”

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Thurman pulls up after starting to say McCutcheon could become USC’s greatest cornerback. Small matter of another, Brian Kelly, a sophomore many rank with any in the conference.

“What I hope happens is that Brian and Daylon challenge each other, that they develop a rivalry and push each other. As a coach, I hope that’s what happens.”

But first things first. Like Oregon State, rain or shine.

“It’s for the Rose Bowl, and I can’t wait,” McCutcheon said.

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“That’s why I came here, to help SC get to the Rose Bowl. I can’t understand why they didn’t get there last year. Well, I do know. They let too many big plays hurt them last year. I felt I could help stop that from happening by playing defense.”


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