When USC assistant coach Foster Andersen says that Tim McDonald is capable of becoming the best defensive back he has ever coached, he is establishing a high standard for the senior safety.
Andersen once coached three-time All-American Kenny Easley during a brief stint at UCLA.
He has also been associated with some accomplished USC defensive backs over the years--Artimus Parker, Charles Phillips, Dennis Thurman, Ronnie Lott and Dennis Smith among them. Lott and Smith were first-round National Football League draft choices.
"I think Tim is every bit as good as any of those players," Andersen said.
So what attributes does McDonald have that set him apart?
"His intelligence and quick reactions," Andersen said. "He reacts and goes so fast, which is what those great players did so well. When they saw something, they used their athletic ability to the maximum instead of checking to see this or that."
McDonald does not try to disturb a receiver's concentration with a steady stream of talk. He stalks receivers as if he were tiptoeing through deep brush.
"I just want a receiver to feel it when I hit him," said McDonald, who was named to The Sporting News All-American team last year. "I want him to know that he's going to be punished after he makes a catch, so he'll lose a bit of concentration in the fourth quarter after getting hit hard all through the game.
"Even when a ball isn't in my area, I'm going to run up to a receiver and get in his face. I want to let him know that I was there, or I will be there."
As USC's strong safety, McDonald is aware that there often is instant recognition after he, or his secondary teammates, have made a mistake in coverage.
"When someone makes a long run, or a pass is completed, people say, 'Where was the DB?' " McDonald said. "But when we're doing our job and playing our hearts out, we're supposed to do that. Have you ever seen a defensive back on the cover of Sports Illustrated?"
At 6 feet 3 inches and 205 pounds, McDonald is larger than most defensive backs. A strong safety is sort of a deep linebacker, involved in run support as well as pass coverage.
McDonald actually becomes an inside linebacker when USC is involved in its five-back defense.
"In one package we take out a lineman and in another we take out a linebacker and put in a defensive back," Andersen said. "Tim gives us a chance to cover down on specific receivers. He's our adjusting nickel back, according to what the offense does.
"He could be anyplace on the field, and we can double any receiver we want. He doesn't necessarily line up in the same place two times in a row. He has to be sharp because he has a lot of things to remember."
A three-year starter, McDonald ranked high in every defensive category last year. He made 102 tackles, fourth highest on the team, and had 4 interceptions, 17 pass deflections, a blocked field goal and 3 tackles for losses. In his USC career, he has blocked three field goals and an extra-point kick.
USC's secondary is one of the strong areas on the team, with McDonald, free safety Junior Thurman and cornerbacks Louis Brock and Greg Coauette. All are experienced, although Coauette was inactive last season as an outside linebacker after injuring his ankle in the opening game against Illinois. Two highly regarded freshmen, Mark Carrier and Cleveland Colter, are reserves.
Coach Ted Tollner regards McDonald as one of his select, big-play performers on defense and was concerned when McDonald had to be helped off the field in the waning minutes of a final preseason scrimmage last week.
McDonald sprained his left ankle while tackling fullback Todd Steele, all 248 pounds of him. But X-rays showed no break, and the injury isn't expected to prevent McDonald from playing in the season opener against Illinois Saturday at the Coliseum.
McDonald makes no excuses for the Trojans' 6-6 record last season, although he seemed puzzled as he tried to analyze it.
"I was surprised we were losing and I was trying to figure out why," he said. "We all know now that a play here or a play there was the difference--those little mental mistakes, not so much physical. If we can prevent them, we can be a good team.
"We needed a little bit more leadership last year from everybody who started, or contributed, or even those who didn't. We should have stepped up and said, 'We're not going to let this happen.' We kept waiting for things to happen instead of going out and making them happen."
McDonald said he was particularly distraught after Washington had stunned USC with late passes on a 98-yard touchdown drive that resulted in a 20-17 victory.
"I couldn't sleep for two nights later, thinking we were just inches away from tipping the ball away on fourth down and taking possession," he said. "I see a different atmosphere here now, a hungry one. We have to prove something to ourselves."