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Chris Steele planning to take a light-handed approach in USC’s secondary

USC cornerback Chris Steele lines up against Utah in November.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Chris Steele has lofty goals for what he believes will be his final season at USC, and he’s happy to recite them for you, one by one. The junior cornerback wants to be known as one of the best cover men in the nation. He wants to be a unanimous All-American and a top NFL draft pick next spring. And in the process, he hopes to reel in at least five interceptions next fall, a total just two Trojans have matched over the past decade.

As Steele tightens his hold on the Trojans’ top corner spot this spring, those high hopes rest, quite literally, in his hands.

Few Pac-12 corners play a more smothering, aggressive style than Steele, but that tight coverage has translated less to turnovers than it has penalties so far in his USC career. The junior has one interception through two seasons, but caught plenty of calls last season from officials, who flagged him for six coverage penalties over six games.

The NCAA puts the USC basketball team on two years’ probation over bribery and corruption scandal involving former assistant coach Tony Bland.

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“I’ve been a little over-physical with my hands at times,” Steele admitted Thursday.

He’s planning to put those hands to better use this season. Steele missed the first week of spring due to health and safety protocols, but his progress in that area was clear upon his return to practice last week. On Tuesday, he closed the session with a leaping interception on a fade to receiver Drake London in the corner of the end zone.

“I think I’ve always had kind of a bad rep of not making plays on the ball, just having a lot of pass breakups,” Steele said. “So this year, I definitely want to make a lot more plays on the ball, get some interceptions.”

Departed safety Talanoa Hufanga was the primary source of picks last season, with four of USC’s nine total interceptions over six games. Steele and fellow starter Olaijah Griffin totaled just two combined in 2020, equal to linebackers Drake Jackson and Kana’i Mauga.

Now, Griffin is off to the NFL, leaving Steele to address that interception disparity and cornerbacks coach Donte Williams with an open corner spot to fill.

Williams expressed his utmost confidence in Steele, calling him “second to none not just in this conference but in the nation.” But the spot opposite Steele is far less certain.

More than likely, it’ll remain a question mark into the fall, as both Isaac Taylor-Stuart and Jayden Williams make their case to fill the field corner role unexpectedly vacated by Griffin.

USC will allow 5,000 fans to attend the Trojans’ spring football game Satuday, welcoming supporters back for the first time since the pandemic began.

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Both have experienced some lapses in technique during their auditions this spring. Like Steele, Williams has a tendency to react too aggressively, USC’s cornerbacks coach said.

“His feet and his eyes are two things that could get him in trouble,” Donte Williams said. “At times you gotta get him to get back into the technical aspect of the game, make sure he’s playing mentally, not just physically.”

For Taylor-Stuart, the issue has been consistency.

“At times, he gets a little lazy with the technical aspect,” Donte Williams said. “He has all the attributes that you would want at that position. But it’s the consistent basis that kind of throws him off a little bit. Two plays that are really, really great are, you know, that’s not good enough. It has to be able to be for a whole game.”

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As USC awaits the arrival of its freshmen corners in the fall, proven depth in the secondary has been scarce beyond those three. So much so that USC moved one of its top receiver recruits to cornerback in the offseason.

Through three weeks of practice, that converted corner, Joshua Jackson, has actually been one of the biggest surprises of camp. Though, his smooth transition should come as less of a surprise to Williams, who originally recruited him as a corner during his tenure on Oregon’s staff.

“I didn’t know if he would come up and strike somebody,” Williams said. “He’s definitely shown a physicality that I didn’t know he had. But at the same time when the ball’s in the air everybody knows that he’s a receiver, and he’s gonna definitely make plays on the ball.”


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