USC working through growing pains with its inexperienced secondary

USC football coach Clay Helton runs players through warm-ups during the opening of training camp at USC.
USC football coach Clay Helton runs players through warm-ups during the opening of training camp on Aug. 2.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Amon-ra St. Brown streaked through the center of USC’s young secondary, unchecked and undaunted. It was late in the Trojans’ first scrimmage of fall camp, and St. Brown had already indoctrinated a few young corners who dared try checking him from his place in the slot. Now, as St. Brown snagged a pass over the middle, the talented sophomore simply sped past them, turned the corner, and dived for an easy score.

How USC’s staff will evaluate that sequence is a matter of perspective. To watch St. Brown, who led the team with 60 catches as a freshman, was a jaw-dropping reminder of just how good the Santa Ana Mater Dei product could be in his second season as one of the centerpieces of a revamped offense.

“His ability, in space, to get open and do something with it after he gets it is special,” coach Clay Helton said. “You can see why he’s one of the best in the country.”

But in the same sequence, it wasn’t hard to understand the early concern over USC’s intensely inexperienced secondary, which was helpless to stop a receiver sprinting across the middle of the field. Seeing a young group of corners victimized by St. Brown and the rest of the receiving corps on Saturday was just as much a blaring reminder of how green the secondary remains, three weeks out from the start of the season.


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Aug. 9, 2019

Deep balls from all four of USC’s competing quarterbacks rained down on a routine basis. Double moves froze more than a few freshman corners. Penalties also remained a problem.

“We took advantage of some freshman corners at times,” Helton said. “But they’ll learn from it, and they’ll come back from it, and they’ll be even better.”

For USC’s staff, the disparity in where the secondary and receiving corps stands after a week of fall camp makes evaluating both position groups a difficult matter moving forward. Do the receivers look good because the cornerbacks are playing poorly? Or do the cornerbacks look bad because USC’s receiving corps is one of the nation’s best?

Either way, camp has proved to be a trial by fire for USC’s fleet of young corners. As Helton sees it, there’s no better way to get past the group’s inevitable growing pains.

“I don’t know if they’ll go against a better group this year than what they’re getting right now,” Helton said. “That’s the way you want it. You hope that Saturdays, you’re comfortable because you’ve gone against one of the best groups in the country. You can’t get any better than what they’re going against right now.”

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Aug. 9, 2019

That’s certainly an optimistic way of looking at USC’s secondary situation. New defensive backs coach Greg Burns was a little more blunt in his assessment of the group on Wednesday, noting that none of the corners vying for a starting spot had been given enough reps yet to show their full potential. Only Olaijah Griffin, whom Helton complimented again on Saturday, has received much in the way of praise.

“Right now, they’re doing well,” Burns said. “But they’re still in a situation where they need to improve every day.”



USC’s quarterbacks were all given equal reps in Saturday’s scrimmage. Afterwards, Helton said sophomores JT Daniels and Jack Sears both “played very maturely.” A decision on quarterbacks isn’t likely until after next Saturday’s scrimmage ... Running back Vavae Malepeai, who was sidelined most of the past week because of an injured knee, may “start integrating back” to practice next week. He began running indoors in recent days, but his status remains uncertain. … Freshman linebacker Ralen Goforth ran with the first-team defense during the scrimmage, as starting linebacker John Houston rested. “With Jordan [Iosefa] out, we really wanted to push Ralen,” Helton said.