football Edit

Wednesday practice report: Greg Johnson, Chase Williams flexible for USC

Redshirt sophomore Greg Johnson looks to settled in after sliding over from cornerback to nickel in recent weeks
Redshirt sophomore Greg Johnson looks to settled in after sliding over from cornerback to nickel in recent weeks (Nick Lucero/Rivals)

Redshirt sophomore Greg Johnson came into camp as USC's most experienced cornerback -- by default -- but he's spent the end of the preseason working mostly at nickel.

In both opening sequences this week that reporters were allowed to watch, Johnson was the nickel with what otherwise resembled the first-team defense, a spot held for most of August by redshirt freshman Chase Williams.

Johnson said it was a move that was discussed with him previously so it wasn't totally unexpected, but given how much praise Burns lathered on Williams this camp it is a bit of a surprise if the latter has indeed been usurped.

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"Obviously [Johnson] is a corner, he brings a little more of the man skills there. To be honest with you, that's probably the biggest thing. They're both doing well," Burns said Wednesday. "I also just needed to make sure I can have a solid backup at safety and knowing that Chase can do that it was easier for me to make adjustments or know that I have swing guys."

Burns also clarified that he's still working on the depth chart and will rotate throughout the secondary at least early in the season.

So that arrangement at nickel and what becomes of each player's role -- Johnson would be the presumed starter, but how much will they rotate? -- will come into fuller clarity Saturday night in the Trojans' opener against Fresno State.

"I'm still going to sort that out, but there are multiple so that's the advantage," Burns said when asked in genera. how many DBs he expected to rotate. "Still going to figure out what the starting lineup will look like, but right now there's going to be at least 6-7 guys that should be in some type of a rotation."

If that doesn't provide any clear answers, well, Burns has been pretty candid in suggesting that he may not have them all himself until he sees those young DBs in game action.

"I've got a general idea what to expect. It is what it is -- they're young," Burns said. "I've played young guys before, but at the same time once they start to play that's the cool part. I just want to get it started, get that first game in, get that first hit and all of a sudden it's like, hey, it's football, go play. So I'm not necessarily worrying about that. I think they're going to do a good job."

What he's looking for specifically is to see which of those guys maintains the techniques they've refined this preseason or which revert back to old habits during the speed of the game.

Sophomore Olaijah Griffin has been the steadiest cornerback through camp while redshirt freshman Isaac Taylor-Stuart and true freshman Chris Steele have been competing for the other spot. Taylor-Stuart took the first-team reps at the start of practice Wednesday. Again, though, Burns played coy, suggesting that both corner spots could be rotated.

Sophomore Talanoa Hufanga and redshirt sophomore Isaiah Pola-Mao are of course the primary safeties, but there could be some snaps for Williams there too, Burns said. (USC's depth chart for the opener will be formally released Friday).

He wanted to emphasize that he sees rotating as a positive -- not an act of uncomfortable necessity.

"I have dual guys in regards to Greg, in regards to Chase. I would like to think I'm going to use Chase from a nickel to a safety, and Greg from a nickel to a corner. It will be just kind of how the game goes," Burns said. "I have a general [idea], but I don't want to say I'm doing it and I don't. But the thought is there's going to be 5-6, 6-7 guys that will be in some type of rotation. ...

"There's no reason why Chase and Greg shouldn't play there. They're both good. There's no reason why Chase shouldn't play safety, he's good. And same with Greg [at corner]. For me when you're saying rotation, I'm not looking at it like [we need to replace a guy] -- no, he deserves it."

What the Trojans need is to find answers to the biggest question on their defense -- in whatever form that comes.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast indicated he likely wouldn't want to rotate DBs in series because he wants his cover guys to get into the flow of the action during a drive, but from one series to the next Saturday could be an extended audition at some spots.

More on Johnson ...

Johnson, who started four games and played in 10 last fall, said the main difference of moving inside to nickel is the added communication responsibilities that come with the role.

"I feel I can play anywhere on the defense," he said. "It all comes along with just knowing the responsibilities on the back end and just being ready when your name is called. They told me to move to the nickel spot so I just stepped up and played my role."

It was just a couple weeks ago that Burns praised Williams' football IQ and noted he was "as polished mentally as Talanoa," who is perhaps the most instinctual player on the Trojans' defense.

As for Johnson, Burns added this Wednesday: "Good athleticism, man skills, good blitzes, a lot of good quick-twitch things. Has a little bit of savvy to it, especially when he blitzes. What a nickel should look like."

Notes ...

USC was in shells Wednesday, as usual, and reporters got to see a couple walkthrough series from the offense before being ushered out of practice per the new 20-minute media availability.

The first notable observation with the first-team offense was Drew Richmond, the Tennessee graduate transfer, working at right tackle with Jalen McKenzie sliding in to left guard in place of Andrew Vorhees. We've seen more and more of this over the last couple weeks after Richmond spent the bulk of camp working at left tackle behind Austin Jackson. (Jackson, left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker and center Brett Neilon were in their normal spots at the start of practice Wednesday).

The second notable observation was that running backs Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai were on the field together with that first unit. Redshirt freshman Markese Stepp worked as the second-team running back.

The rest of the first unit was as usual with Michael Pittman and Tyler Vaughns on the outside and Amon-Ra St. Brown in the slot.

The second-team offensive line was Frank Martin at left tackle, Jacob Daniel at left guard, Justin Dedich at center, Liam Douglass at right guard and Liam Jimmons at right tackle. (Vorhees was not involved in the walkthroughs, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything as reporters didn't see the rest of practice).

The second-team wideouts were freshmen Munir McClain and John Jackson III on the outside and freshman Drake London in the slot, along with tight end Josh Falo. That Devon Williams and Velus Jones were not part of those series indicates that the personnel groupings don't necessarily indicate depth chart standing in all cases.

Defensively, as was the case Tuesday as well, defensive ends Christian Rector (right) and Drake Jackson (left) were together on the first unit bookending Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu.

As mentioned, Taylor-Stuart and Griffin were the first-team corners.