The star-studded USC offense, led by senior quarterback Matt Barkley, will be the focus of considerable media attention this football season, but the much-maligned defense earned some headlines of its own last week, as cornerback Nickell Robey and safety T.J. McDonald were recognized on preseason watch lists for the Nagurski, Thorpe, and Bednarik awards.
A weak spot for USC in Lane Kiffin’s first two seasons as head coach, the defense should continue to improve in 2012, with Robey and McDonald providing stability and leadership in the secondary.
McDonald, a senior captain, has 23 starts with the Trojans; Robey, a junior, has 24. Both players have six career interceptions and were first-team All-Pac-12 selections in 2011.
Though they share interception totals, preseason accolades, and a penchant for mentoring the newest members of the USC defense, the similarities end there.
McDonald is a California native who grew up dreaming of playing for USC, where his dad, Tim, was a star before launching a successful NFL career. (T.J. and Tim are the first father-son duo from USC to be first-team All-Americans and team captains.)
Robey came to L.A. from Florida, and initially committed to play for Tennessee before signing with the Trojans (and former Vols coach Kiffin).
McDonald, an imposing 6’3″, 205 lbs., is a physcial, hard-hitting back who racked up personal foul penalties last season, even serving a half-game suspension for a late-hit in the USC-Stanford game.
Robey, just 5’8″ and 165 lbs., is often at a disadvantage when covering bigger receivers, but he makes up for it with his speed; he even joined the USC track team this offseason.
McDonald and Robey are focused playing hard, shoring up the defense after a few shaky seasons, and helping to lead the Trojans back to a bowl game after two years of sanctions, in what might be the final season at USC for them both. (McDonald is in his last year; Robey will decide after the season whether to return for his senior season or enter the draft.)
The better the Trojans’ defense is, though, the greater their chances at individual honors. The only Trojan to receive the Jim Thorpe Award for best defensive back was Mark Carrier in 1986.
No one from USC has taken home the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which since 1993 has been awarded to the nation’s best defensive player. McDonald or Robey, or even linebacker Dion Bailey, who was also named to the Nagurski and Bednarik watch lists, could be the first.