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USC’s cornerbacks have a new coach and a new attitude

USC cornerback Olaijah Griffin is pictured in the 2019 season against Fresno State.
Junior cornerback Olaijah Griffin, pictured last season, is covering the widest side of the field in more of a playmaking role as part of USC’s new defensive scheme.
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

Olaijah Griffin has never lacked for confidence. But when the USC junior cornerback finds himself lined up alone with an opposing wide receiver, that confidence tends to swell even further.

“When I’m in that position,” Griffin said this week, “my talents go even higher.”

The corner’s confidence is soaring these days in USC’s new defensive scheme, which, by design, consistently has him cover the widest side of the field. New cornerbacks coach Donte Williams preaches a field-and-boundary system with his corners, which sees them regularly flip sides of the field, depending on where the ball is spotted.

Griffin is the field corner, which Williams described as more of a playmaking role.

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“Olaijah definitely likes the show,” Williams said. “My biggest thing is making sure he feels when he goes in there, he’s a gladiator, he’s stepping into Roman times in that arena.”

Receiver Munir McClain, who got money from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, was suspended and his family says they weren’t given an answer as to why.

The boundary corner, a role that will be filled by sophomore Chris Steele, covers the shorter side of the field and often plays more press coverage, in tighter quarters, lined up against larger receivers.

Both Steele and Griffin said the new roles were a perfect fit for their skill sets.

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“It’s two different body types, and it’s two kinds of different people mentally,” Williams said. “And I’m fortunate enough where I stepped into a place that I feel has those type of guys and has those type of bodies to where we can still do that.”

The Trojans haven’t had any measure of consistency in the defensive backfield since before either of their starting corners arrived on campus. For Griffin, Williams is his third position coach in three seasons. For Steele, who once committed to play for Williams at Oregon, it’s his fourth.

But in Williams, USC, for the first time, has a coach dedicated solely to cornerbacks. USC’s safeties have their own new assistant, Craig Naivar, who also worked with new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando at Texas and Houston.

It’s not just the corners who seem to be an ideal fit for Orlando’s defense. USC coach Clay Helton said Thursday that the aggressive scheme “was made for Talanoa [Hufanga].”

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Experienced starters Alijah Vera-Tucker, Jalen McKenzie and Brett Neilon will probably be joined by Liam Jimmons and Andrew Vorhees on the offensive line.

“He’s got the opportunity within this system to show himself as a post safety, a box safety, a flat-zone defender, and show man-coverage skills,” Helton said of his junior safety. “It’s going to show every one of his skill sets. You’re talking about a 210-, 215-pound man that runs a 4.4, can cover, can hit, can be a box player, can literally walk in between the tackles and be in a linebacker position. He’s one of those special, special skill sets.”

Those skills were on display last year as well, as Hufanga notched more tackles per game (nine) than any other player on USC’s defense. His performance put him on the radar of NFL scouts. But a new, more physical role — coupled with a clean bill of health for his oft-injured shoulder — could cement that status, perhaps even pushing him into first-round consideration.

The corners on either side of him have their own plans for proving themselves.

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“I feel like we definitely don’t have the respect that we want,” Steele said. “So we’re definitely embracing that challenge, and we’re ready to show the whole Pac-12 that we’re the best DB corps in the country.”


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