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July 28, 2009At the end of the 2008 season, USC fans and coaches crossed their fingers and hoped that Mark Sanchez and Taylor Mays would be back for their final year of eligibility.
Sanchez had just over a year of starting experience while Mays was a three-time all-American. By the time the NFL Draft rolled around, Sanchez was in New York, and Mays was on the field at the Coliseum for the Trojan Huddle, patrolling the secondary.
With Mays and a host of veterans back, the secondary looks like one of the defense's biggest strengths.
USC started off the season hoping to replace just one player in the secondary, cornerback Terrell Thomas, who was headed to the NFL. USC turned to Shareece Wright, and Wright started the first two games of the year before breaking a bone in his neck against Ohio State.
With him sidelined, the Trojans turned two a pair of oft-injured cornerbacks to step in, and both stayed healthy all year.
Josh Pinkard moved to cornerback from safety and slid into the starting lineup for the entire season, and Kevin Thomas returned from an injury to give USC a strong third corner to go along with Cary Harris and Pinkard.
Thomas finished the season with three interceptions, and Pinkard ended up with 39 tackles, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
At the back end of the defense, USC had two of the country's best in Kevin Ellison and Mays.
Ellison starred during the first seven games of the season before suffering a knee injury in practice. He returned from surgery to record two tackles against UCLA, but he didn't play in the Rose Bowl. After his injury, Will Harris took over as a starter.
Mays took major steps forward in 2008, becoming more than just an athlete on the defensive side of the ball. Playing more confidently and intellectually, Mays finished the year with 53 tackles and nine passes defended.
True freshman Drew McAllister intercepted three passes as a reserve safety, and T.J. Bryant saw some time in USC's lopsided wins.
Without Ellison at safety and Harris at corner, USC will have 50 percent of its starting secondary gone. Still, the Trojans might end up being as loaded as ever.
The return of Mays certainly helps, as the senior has his eyes set on the nation's top individual prize.
"I want to win the Heisman - 10 sacks, 10 picks and we go undefeated. (I won't return kicks); I'll just return my picks for touchdowns," Mays said. "I have to return three of them for touchdowns and maybe force a couple of fumbles on the sacks.
"I at least want to go to New York."
Next to Mays will be either Pinkard, moving back to safety, or Harris. Pinkard has the edge right now after Harris missed a big chunk of spring football after an academic problem.
Now that Harris is back, he's hungry to help the team continue to gel.
"I think we're coming together as a group. It's beautiful," Harris said. "I saw it happen last year, and I think I see it starting to happen now. We're working even harder.
"It's on. When fall camp comes, you'll see that the fun and games are over.""
McAllister could also be in the mix thanks to his ball hawking. McAllister missed a big chunk of time this spring because of an injury, and he had to find other ways to get better.
"This summer has mostly been about the rehab, but I've also been getting up there as much as I can to watch film, making sure I know the defense," McAllister said. "That's the first thing. I definitely want to be solid in the playbook. I want to know my stuff so you're not messing up on the field. I also want to work on my footwork and all of that."
At corner, USC will have Thomas returning to pair with a healthy Wright. With the injury and legal problems behind him, Wright's ready to move ahead, and he's not worried about being pushed from behind.
"I'm the type who has never been all that concerned with the next guy taking my spot," Wright said. "I never worried about that. It never got to me. I just have got to do whatever I have to do.
"If I'm the best cornerback, I know I'll be out there."
Bryant and Marshall Jones both are coming off good springs.
"I think for the most part I just gained a ton of experience. I learned a lot," Bryant said. "I learned how to break down film totally differently. I just picked up some tricks, like what to look for on the line instead of just going out there and playing."
Jones, who moved from safety to cornerback, capped his spring with an interception in the spring game. He said Pinkard provides a great model for the switch.
"Josh made the switch. I try to compare myself to him," Jones said. "He's sort of a role model for how I can play and help this team. I want to play my game like he plays his."
Redshirt freshman Brian Baucham impressed this spring, but he's been slowed by injuries this summer.
What will be
USC's secondary will be one of the team's biggest strengths with a group of veteran, experienced contributors. The Trojans also have a big group of incoming freshmen in Byron Moore, Jawanza Starling, Torin Harris, Patrick Hall and T.J. McDonald - with all but Hall already on campus.
Pete Carroll has always had a penchant for finding time for his newcomers, but with a stacked depth chart, it could be tough.
Mays probably won't win the Heisman Trophy, but he will be a favorite for the Thorpe Award.
Pinkard, Harris and McAllister all are good enough to be on the field, and Horton gives USC some hard-hitting depth.
Wright and Thomas will start, and Bryant will be one of the better No. 3 cornerbacks around. He could be a candidate for a breakout season.
Whoever ends up on the field, the USC secondary will allow the Trojans to blitz often and force quarterbacks into quick decisions. That should open the door for plenty of turnovers.