A consistent criticism of the USC defense in recent years was that it wasn’t physical enough. It missed too many tackles. It didn’t practice in a way that prepared it for games.
So when defensive coordinator Todd Orlando was hired in the winter, he promised a new practice style for the Trojans. It took several months for him to get the chance to show his players what he meant, but with fall camp finally here, the defense is seeing the change.
“We really treat practice like it’s a game,” cornerback Chris Steele said Wednesday. “Last year, everything was kinda toned down, but this year our coaches come out with a lot of energy and everybody really competes like it’s a game.”
Fellow corner Olaijah Griffin concurred: “Last year, we weren’t really physical so we didn’t really get the feel of like hitting, even though we know how to hit and be physical. But now just getting the feel of the physicality and practice going against each other, it’s just helping us.”
It’s been a welcome change for USC, especially after a long quarantine kept the team away from football activities for months. And it was a change the players were anticipating coming into fall camp, just based off the personalities of the new defensive staff.
“With Coach T.O. coming in, with the new staff coming in, they kind of brought that new mindset. Run through somebody’s face every single play,” Steele said. “Just the way they talked to us before we got in pads, I knew it would be physical throughout camp.”
Despite that understanding, there’s still a feeling out period with the new coaches. Cornerbacks coach Donte Williams said the units are still going through the bonding process of becoming “family” with the coaching staff.
But through two weeks of camp, Williams says he’s learning about his players already. He can see the pride with which they play the game, an asset he says corners need given the nature of their position.
“You can play 99 perfect plays and on Play 100 you give up a pass, that’s all everyone remembers,” said Williams, hired away from Oregon this offseason. “So when you’re prideful, you never want to do anything wrong or make a mistake because everyone is looking at you.”
Williams plans to rotate through his corners and says no starting job is guaranteed. Players can earn more playing time based on their performance in practice that week, which he believes keeps competition fierce.
And the players themselves have enjoyed competing at full speed with their teammates. Griffin and Steele said they enjoy going up against Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns at practice, and have been impressed with young receivers Bru McCoy and Gary Bryant, though the latter has been sidelined recently with an injury.
And the corners have been impressed with quarterback Kedon Slovis in camp.
“He’s really an NFL quarterback playing college football right now,” Griffin said. “Because there will be plays where I’ll make a good play, break on the ball, and he just fits it in a spot where I just can’t reach even if I’m doing everything correctly.”