LOS ANGELES — The test is about to start, and Southern California cornerback Kevon Seymour has his pencil sharpened.
“No doubt,” Seymour said. “I’m ready. I’m looking forward to it.”
Praise has been heaped upon USC’s defense this week — at least most of it.
While the defensive line, linebackers and safeties basked in the glow of a dominating effort over Hawaii last week, the cornerbacks shuffled away quietly. They had a few appearances on the game highlights, and none were positive.
Now, here comes Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday, whose arm figures to get quite the workout. Halliday attempted 65 passes in last week’s loss to Auburn, and the Cougars almost certainly will test USC’s corners early and often in Saturday’s Pacific-12 Conference opener at the Coliseum.
Also, the Trojans are almost certain to be without Seymour’s partner, starting cornerback Anthony Brown, who hurt his knee against Hawaii.
Seymour is also nursing an injury but is expected to play. To replace Brown, USC will turn to Torin Harris or Devian Shelton, who both struggled last week, or safety Josh Shaw, who said he practiced at cornerback this week.
That is not exactly comforting for a defense set to face an offense known as the “Air Raid.”
“I’d be concerned about that even if we had great depth,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said.
It goes back to last season, when the Trojans had one reliable cornerback, Nickell Robey, and struggled to find another. Harris, Brown and Shaw rotated with limited effectiveness, and the position was dealt a crippling blow in January when Robey decided to skip his senior season and declare for the NFL draft.
Here’s the good news for USC’s cornerbacks: They are going to get some help this week.
Given the injuries at cornerback, and the Cougars’ pass-happy offense, USC figures to spend most, if not all, of the game in a nickel-package defense.
That is nothing new for the Trojans, though.
“We’re now in a conference where so much is nickel all the time, because of the teams we play,” Kiffin said. “They’re so spread out. A lot of times, I think now we’ve come to a position in the Pac-12 where nickel is your base defense. It’s just where we are in college football, especially in this conference.”
That means going away from having five pass-rushers at the line of scrimmage, which is the basis of coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s “52” defense. Instead, the Trojans will use a more traditional four-man front, backed up by two linebackers and three safeties. Technically, it could be as many as four safeties.
If Shaw lines up at cornerback, the Trojans can use Dion Bailey, Su’a Cravens and either Demetrius Wright, Gerald Bowman or Leon McQuay at safety. Unlike at cornerback, USC has stellar depth at safety.
“Every completion is going to be contested tightly in man coverage,” Halliday said of USC’s defense.
The Cougars will not be thrilled to see Pendergast, who spent the three previous years as California’s defensive coordinator. Cal went 3-0 against Washington State in that time and allowed a total of only 37 points.
In their second year under coach Mike Leach, the Cougars seem determined to run the ball more effectively than they did last season, but do not be fooled. Halliday’s 65 pass attempts were only one short of the school’s single-game record, set by Drew Bledsoe in 1992.
“Everybody is going to play press-man against us until (receivers) can show that we can successfully beat it and get off jams and be more physical outside,” Halliday said. “I think we’re on our way to showing that.”
The Cougars have something to prove, and Kiffin said he expects Halliday to throw 75 or 80 times.
Are USC’s hobbled, inexperienced cornerbacks ready?
“Oh, yeah. I love it,” Seymour said with a smile. “It makes me feel so good.”