Junior strong safety Jawanza Starling out of Tallahassee (Fla.) has been a playmaker in his first full year starting for the Trojans, appearing in all 11 games thus far and creating stability in the defensive backfield.
"It's felt good to have a full year of starting under my belt. I've definitely improved in pass coverage and tackling," Starling said.
Starling has been able to more fully understand Monte Kiffin's scheme in his second year under the coordinator.
"We've definitely gotten better [as a defense]," he said. "We've bought in having another year in the system under these coaches."
Starling has been a reliable complement to junior All-America T.J. McDonald all season long despite questions about who would start opposite McDonald and sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey in the secondary at the beginning of the season.
In fact, last month when it mattered most, with Notre Dame driving deep in Trojan territory late in the third quarter, Starling scooped up a Dayne Christ fumble and took it the distance for 6. With a 24-10 lead after that point, victory was all but ensured at Notre Dame Stadium.
And just last week, Starling pounced on a LaMichael James fumble on the USC nine-yard line, preserving a two touchdown Trojan lead at the end of the first half.
"Big time players show up in big time games. It's just part of what I have to do if I want to make it to the next level," Starling said. "For the one in Oregon, I think I was moving too fast [to scoop the ball]. But I had second look at it, and maybe if I was more aware I could have scooped it up."
Starling credits his baseball background-he was also a member of the baseball team at USC-with giving him the focus to stay down on the bouncing pigskin.
Sunshine State Invasion
Starling is also one half of USC's starting secondary from Florida alongside Nickell Robey. He appreciates the comforting aspect of having Floridians Robey, T.J. Bryant (a high school teammate and current roommate), Frankie Telfort, and freshman tailback Javorious Allen (also a high school teammate) in the Trojan family, but says his decision to play at USC was purely football.
"We just came out here to play with the best, and SC is the best," he said. "It's comforting [to have guys from the South], but the most important thing is we're all out here to play football."
Though he hails from across the country, the importance of beating UCLA Saturday in the Coliseum isn't lost upon Starling.
"It's different for me because I haven't grown up hating UCLA or 'SC, but it's a big game for 'SC, so that means it's a big game for me. I just want to go out there and make plays," Starling said.
As the season winds down with UCLA on Saturday and no bowl game, it's only natural for Trojan fans to look ahead to next September. With the likely loss of underclassmen McDonald and defensive end Nick Perry to April's NFL draft, Starling, along with Robey, Dion Bailey, and Hayes Pullard, will be expected to lead Monte Kiffin's defense in 2012.
Satyen Motiani is a USC student and USCFootball.com contributor. You can follow him on twitter at @smotiani.