Senior safety Marvell Tell III has become ‘true student’ of the game for USC

USC safety Marvell Tell III is a senior leader on the Trojans' defense.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

After two years on the USC football team, focusing only on his job was no longer enough for safety Marvell Tell III.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s system does not allow for isolation. Coverage is constantly shifting, and players need to be aware of the bigger picture and communicate consistently on who is covering which players or zones. So Tell adapted last season.

“He’s become, I’ve heard him say it a bunch, a true student of the game,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “He believes in it now. And he really took that up last year and has really progressed it even more this year.”

The change paid off. Last season, he was one tackle from doubling his 2016 total, with three interceptions, and made the All-Pac-12 first team. And now that Tell must explain the defense to others, Pendergast’s schemes have become conceptually ingrained — an elevation in knowledge Helton believes will help the senior at the next level.


Tell’s talkativeness has become an asset for the Trojans, especially now. With Bubba Bolden not playing because of an undisclosed personnel matter, Ykili Ross gone from the program and Isaiah Pola-Mao sustaining a shoulder injury, the safety spot beside Tell is up for grabs between two fourth-string players: redshirt sophomore C.J. Pollard and freshman Talanoa Hufanga.

Pollard has six games of collegiate experience, Hufanga two. Helton said he has emphasized communication with the pair among his experienced defenders, so they can help point Pollard and Hufanga to their role on each play.

Tell has delivered, and he continues communicating with the pair, even when they step off the field.

“For me, just to finally get in that spot where he’s really there … side by side, it’s a lot different,” Hufanga said. “And for him to just be a role model in that sense is incredible to have a guy like him to look up to.”


Touchdown drought

When Helton was asked how he responded to the team’s inability to score a touchdown in the 17-3 loss to Stanford, he let out a short laugh. “You don’t sleep at night,” he said.

But that is the opposite message he is telling the players. The Trojans know that closing drives is a focus going into their Saturday matchup against Texas — Helton has spoken to them about it and had them do extra red zone work in practice Wednesday — but he does not want to pressure them.

Besides, he is still confident they will deliver.


“We played a good football team, and just didn’t get it in,” Helton said. “It’s gonna break through, it really is.”

Playing through third-down pressure

Helton brought back speakers to simulate crowd noise Wednesday, preparing the offense for the pressure it will face in a hostile Texas Stadium — especially on third down.

USC struggled in the opener against Nevada Las Vegas, converting only five of 15 third-down situations. The Trojans went eight for 17 in third-down conversions against Stanford. Texas has limited two opponents to a 28.1% conversion rate on third down — 29th in the nation.


“I think they do a great job disguising coverages and bringing those pressures,” Helton said of the Longhorns. “And you have to be able to find the zones, the void zones, and you have to be able to find them within a limited time.”


Helton said there have been no changes on the status of those who are injured, though offensive tackle Chuma Edoga missed practice with an upset stomach. Helton said quarterback JT Daniels is recovering smoothly from a hand injury he suffered against Stanford.


Twitter: @rblakerich_