UCLA’s defensive backs expect to measure up against USC receivers

Bruins cornerback Ishmael Adams (24) celebrates with teammate Anthony Jefferson (23) after intercepting a pass against Stanford during a game last month.
(Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

Ishmael Adams, the short guy with the don’t-try-to-tread-on-me glare at cornerback for the UCLA defense, waits for the inevitable.

Against Arizona State last Saturday he didn’t wait long.

On Arizona State’s second possession, quarterback Taylor Kelly lofted a third-down pass to 6-foot-4 Jaelen Strong, who easily outjumped the 5-8 Adams.

Only Adams wasn’t done. As Strong descended, Adams raked the ball from his arms — and probably took a skin sample as well.


“We just sit back there sharpening our swords,” Adams said.

UCLA defensive backs scrap and, yes, sometimes claw. On Saturday, they will need to against a group of USC receivers with greyhound pedigree.

Who better to send after them than some junkyard dogs?

“USC will find out that this is a talented, physical group,” said UCLA receiver Shaquelle Evans, who butts heads with his team’s secondary in practice. “They get after you every play.”

UCLA had to replace its entire starting secondary this season, and opponents have prodded and probed the replacements, trying to find weaknesses. Statistics indicate opponents have found some success. The Bruins rank 55th out of 123 teams nationally in passing yards, giving up 225.4 yards per game. They are 67th in passing efficiency defense.

But numbers rarely tell a complete story.

“We’re just scrappy guys,” safety Anthony Jefferson said. “When you line up, it’s going to be a battle.”

Jefferson said constant questions about the secondary gave its members a sharp edge.

Adams, in particular, doesn’t pass the eyeball test. He not only is short, but he also required shoulder surgery after two games as a freshman last season. He looks like bait to opposing passing combinations, but he has pulled a bait and switch on more than a few occasions.

“He’s got that little-man complex, which is what I like,” said Demetrice Martin, who coaches UCLA’s defensive backs. “There is no feat too big for him.”

Some guys have a chip on their shoulder. Adams totes around a cinder block come game time.

Regarding taller receivers — and they all are taller — Adams said, “Their highest point is going to be higher than mine, but they have to come down.”

Two of Adams’ team-high four interceptions came on plays in which he wrenched the ball from a receiver’s hands upon descent.

“He’s a wildly competitive guy,” UCLA Coach Jim Mora said.

UCLA could use a couple of more like him against USC.

The Bruins are expected to be a man down against a Trojans receivers corps that includes Marqise Lee, Nelson Agholor, Darreus Rogers and a couple of NFL prospects at tight end.

UCLA cornerback Fabian Moreau suffered a pulled hamstring muscle against Arizona State that resulted in “some musical chairs in the secondary,” Mora said.

Safeties Jefferson and Randall Goforth have taken turns as cornerbacks, and freshman Tahaan Goodman is expected to have an increased role at safety.

At times, Mora said, “I looked out on the field and was trying to figure who was playing where. I’d hear one say, ‘You got corner, I got safety.’ Hopefully that won’t go on.”

That mix-and-match secondary has a major chore ahead on Saturday.

USC’s Lee, the Biletnikoff Award winner last season as college football’s top receiver, has waded through pain this season. He sustained a shoulder injury in training camp, a knee injury against Arizona State and a shin injury against Stanford. He did not travel to Colorado last week, the third game he has missed.

Yet, Lee still has 44 receptions for 604 yards and two touchdowns. He also has Mora’s respect — possibly stemming from Lee’s 158 yards receiving and a touchdown against UCLA last season.

“You can tell that he’s not 100% healthy, but that doesn’t mean a lot when you’re talking about Marqise Lee,” Mora said.

Lee is not a solo act, either. Agholor has blossomed while Lee has limped. Agholor has a knack for finding open seams, and he has 47 receptions for 789 yards and four touchdowns. Rogers, a freshman, is growing into the job. He had a key catch in USC’s 20-17 upset of Stanford.

“The goal is to slow them down and limit what they do best,” Martin said. “We have to come up with some special things to try to contain them.”

Rogers has a premonition about that. “I’ve got a big feeling about this game, that it’s going to be my biggest one,” he said. “It’s the last game before the bowl game, so I’m ready to go out there and just ball.”

He also plans to provide some running commentary. “I’m going to talk smack,” Rogers said, laughing.

Rogers said that Goforth is “one of my best friends,” and that he is close to Adams. All were high school stars in the Los Angeles area — Rogers at Carson, Goforth at Long Beach Poly and Adams at Westlake Village Oaks Christian.

“I’m going to let them know,” Rogers said.

He can expect to hear some things in return.

UCLA’s Martin smiled and said of Adams, “Ish does have that bulldog mentality. Sometimes I have to tamp that down. Hey, if you make a good play, forget about it and move on.”

But you can’t teach a junkyard dog new tricks.

“Ish is going to get in your face and your head,” Evans said. “And you’re going to hear about it. The little guy always has to be the toughest.”

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.