LOS ANGELES — Before he took a job at Georgia, Donte Williams left USC with one heck of an early Christmas gift.
Williams, for four years in a complicated and fascinating USC assistant-coaching career – with a tumultuous interim head-coach stint in 2021 – only built upon a reputation as one of the best recruiters in the nation. He brought in a consistent wealth of talent in the defensive back room; the 2024 class was no exception, bringing in a treasure chest of shiny prospects like St. John Bosco corner Marcelles Williams, Los Alamitos corner Isaiah Rubin and Sierra Canyon’s Marquis Gallegos.
Williams, though, was never quite able to capitalize on the foundation he brought to USC, one of his homegrown cornerbacks never truly turning into a star. And as USC brought in former Houston defensive coordinator Doug Belk the same day Williams announced he’d accepted a job with Georgia, Belk now walks in, in a sense, to finish the job Williams started – a wealth of talent to mold at his disposal.
Overshadowed by Miller Moss’ performance in the Holiday Bowl, a patchwork USC secondary – turning to fresh faces and untested backups – had perhaps its best performance of the year against Louisville, with defensive backs like Prophet Brown, Jacobe Covington and Anthony Beavers Jr. making strong cases for extended playing time in 2024. And on top of that, new defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn’s crosstown move from UCLA drew transfers Kamari Ramsey and John Humphrey to USC with him, beefing up a young secondary with proven experience.
In short: from top to bottom, after a clear lack of talent in 2023, USC’s defensive-back room might be the strongest point of Lynn’s defense. And spring ball will be truly fascinating for players to gain separation, perhaps a dozen names in this mix fighting for consistent playing time come 2024.
Here’s a full breakdown of USC’s defensive backs entering spring practice, the last in a six-part series examining the post-early-portal-period outlook for every part of the roster.
Returning: Jr. Jacobe Covington, Soph. Prophet Brown, Soph. Ceyair Wright (likely but unknown), Fr. Tre’Quon Fegans, Fr. Maliki Crawford
Arriving: True Fr. Marcelles Williams (St. John Bosco), True Fr. Braylon Conley (Texas), True Fr. Isaiah Rubin (Los Alamitos), Sr. John Humphrey (transfer, UCLA), Sr. DeCarlos Nicholson (transfer, Mississippi State)
Departing: Soph. Domani Jackson (transfer, Georgia), Soph. Fabian Ross (transfer, Hawai’i)
Returning: Fr. Zion Branch, Soph. Anthony Beavers Jr., Jr. Jaylin Smith, Fr. Christian Pierce, Sr. Bryson Shaw
Arriving: True Fr. Marquis Gallegos (Sierra Canyon), True Fr. Jarvis Boatwright (Florida), Jr. Akili Arnold (transfer, Oregon State), Fr. Kamari Ramsey (transfer, UCLA)
Departing: Sr. Max Williams (draft), Jr. Calen Bullock (draft), Soph. Xamarion Gordon (transfer, unknown), Sr. Christian Roland-Wallace (draft)
How does the safety group shake out, positionally? After playing at the nickel all season, junior Jaylin Smith shifted to safety for the Holiday Bowl and had his best game of the season, named the Defensive Player of the Game in a 12-tackle effort. It was a natural positional switch, Smith struggling in pass coverage at times in 2023 but a consistent ball-hawk. If he sticks at safety and not nickel, it’ll further crowd a busy room with the additions of Ramsey and Arnold, who project as starters on paper. Branch won a starting job before a season-ending knee injury in 2023, and could contend; Beavers Jr. was tremendous in the Holiday Bowl with eight tackles and will push for snaps as well.
Will any true freshmen push for snaps? It might be too crowded, but if anyone’s likely to get consistent run in 2024, it’s Williams, who has state-championship pedigree from Bosco and is the most collegiate-ready of the incoming freshmen class. Gallegos is a smart mind in the secondary and eager playmaker, but will likely need to beef up his frame.
Perhaps no USC defender – at any position – had a better game all season tackling in space than Brown in the Holiday Bowl. It was a coming-out party for the sophomore, who consistently wrapped up in one-on-one situations and allowed just 10 receiving yards on five targets, according to Pro Football Focus. Roland-Wallace established himself as a near-lockdown corner down the stretch, and USC will need a member of this current group to step up; Humphrey and Nicholson will have roles as transfers, but keep an eye on Brown in the spring.