Competition with new-look offense an asset for USC’s defense in spring ball

USC’s defensive backs are taking advantage of increased reps, Donte Williams’ undivided attention and stiff competition heading into Saturday’s Spring Game.

An overhead photo of USC's players warming up before a spring practice.

USC football’s added playmakers at the skill positions this offseason — sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams, sophomore receiver Mario Williams, junior receiver Brenden Rice and redshirt senior running back Travis Dye, to name a few — have the Trojans’ offense in a clearly much-improved state ahead of the 2022 season.

But Saturday’s Spring Game, which will cap USC’s month-long spring practice slate, will provide fans the chance to see another added benefit of the Trojans’ revamped offense: its downstream impact on a similarly overhauled defense.

Thursday was USC’s final spring practice (other than Saturday’s scrimmage at the Coliseum), and as defensive players and coaches reflected on the 14 installments of the spring slate, lost on none of them was their apparent in-house advantage of competing against an offense expected to be among the nation’s best this season.

“Every single day, to go against our offense, there’s nothing we don’t see,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said Thursday. “You go through 20 years of coaching, and there’s a situation maybe in the past where you may not see something until you get into the season because your offense only gives you X, Y and Z. But we get A, B and C through Z.”

Grinch also mentioned Caleb Williams’ and redshirt freshman Miller Moss’ ability to make USC’s defense pay for broken coverage — punishment that’s been especially valuable for the Trojans’ relatively thin cornerback unit to adjust to either increased roles from last season or an entirely new defensive scheme altogether.

One of those cornerbacks is redshirt freshman Prophet Brown, who saw action in four games (starting one) for USC in 2021. Brown said USC’s receivers present a range of challenges for the defensive backs, mentioning Rice and redshirt junior Kyle Ford’s physicality, Mario Williams’ skill at the line of scrimmage and redshirt freshman Kyron Ware-Hudson’s ability to make plays downfield.

That — coupled with increased reps as a result of some earlier injuries, such as those to redshirt senior Mekhi Blackmon and freshman Domani Jackson — has given Brown an opportunity for increased reps in spring.

“It’s unfortunate that we have guys hurt on our team and stuff, but getting the reps is really good,” Brown said. “It helps you work when you’re tired. Because that’s very important at this level. You’re gonna go seven-play, nine-play drives, and you’re gonna be tired at the end of the drive. And you really gotta just lock in and stay steady on technique. I feel like these practices help everyone with that.”

This year, those practice reps have come under the direct leadership of defensive backs coach Donte Williams — unlike most of last season, when Williams was elevated from that position into the interim head coaching role following Clay Helton’s early firing. Naturally, the move from position coach to head coach meant less individual attention on Williams’ speciality, the DBs.

Now, USC’s cornerback unit will have the luxury of increased work with Williams both in spring ball and into the regular season.

“He really hones in on our details and our craft,” Brown said. “It’s been helpful a lot, ‘cause he’s a mastermind at the cornerback position. He’s a mastermind coach in general, but to have him to yourself is a blessing.”

And Williams, so far, has liked what he’s seen from his group.

“To be honest, all of ‘em,” Williams said when asked who has improved the most during spring camp. “Even the guys that right now haven’t all the way been able to do everything, but they’ve still been able to do something. Even those guys have worked a lot. Or even guys who, for whatever reason, missed all of spring — just because they’ve grown so much mentally. Just as people, as persons and learning the defense. So I think that’s important.”