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Trojans' Secondary Ready for the Worst

November 16, 1990|JERRY CROWE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

USC's young, inexperienced secondary has been burned with uncommon regularity this season.

Quarterbacks Tony Sacca of Penn State, Mark Brunell of Washington and Greg Frey of Ohio State enjoyed their most productive passing games of the season against the Trojans.

Jason Palumbis of Stanford passed for 360 yards and three touchdowns against USC, including 230 yards in the first quarter.

Even Arizona, the worst passing team in the Pacific 10 Conference, completed a 48-yard pass play against USC, its longest of the season and one of only four scoring passes by the Wildcats in 10 games.

So, it is with great trepidation that USC fans look to Saturday's matchup between the Trojans' secondary and UCLA quarterback Tommy Maddox, who leads the Pac-10 in total offense and ranks third in the conference in passing efficiency.

"Maddox is as good as anybody we've played--maybe better," said Bobby April, who coaches USC's defensive backs. "He's tremendous. He's on the verge of being one of the great players in the country."

Nevertheless, April says he doesn't believe that USC's defensive backfield will be overmatched.

"It's improving each week," he said, adding that, despite a propensity for giving up a lot of yardage, the Trojans rank third in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency defense. "Certainly, a lot of times we've given up big plays--more big plays than I'm accustomed to giving up. But every week, we've gotten a little better."

USC has put together a makeshift unit in the backfield. Fourteen months ago, none of the Trojans' defensive backs were projected as starters this season.

But then:

--Cornerback Marvin Pollard blew out a knee.

--Safety Mark Carrier, winner of the Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back last season, made himself available for the NFL draft.

--Safety Lamont Hollinquest fell behind in class and was suspended by Coach Larry Smith.

--Cornerback DeChon Burns was forced to quit because of a spinal defect.

And it didn't help that the Trojans' top pass rusher, linebacker Junior Seau, also made himself available for the draft.

April was left with a group that includes two converted tailbacks and a converted split end. Two of USC's six most frequently used defensive backs are redshirt freshmen. Another is a true freshman.

Before last March, cornerbacks Mike Salmon and Calvin Holmes were offensive players. "They'd never even backpedaled before," April said. Salmon has started in all but three games, Holmes in all but one.

Cornerback Jason Oliver was still in high school last spring. He has started twice and is expected to start again this week.

The Trojans' on-the-job training has not always gone smoothly.

Still, April said: "I'm not unhappy with the way they're playing. They've made tremendous strides. People have gone after them--they've thrown on us a lot--and they've improved."

Sophomore Stephon Pace has been the leader of the group, shuffling between cornerback and safety and making 58 tackles to rank third on the Trojans. He has two interceptions, and his 14 pass deflections are a team high.

His teammates in the secondary have not been as consistent.

Senior safety Marcus Hopkins has been a disappointment, mostly because the Trojans, perhaps unrealistically, expected him to have a big season. "I thought he would be more of an impact guy," April said. "Although he has done a lot of good things, he hasn't made a lot happen. He hasn't made highlight film-type plays."

Holmes, a converted tailback, has been a quick study, April said, but still needs seasoning.

As pass coverage halfback, he is probably the most visible and vulnerable player in the backfield.

"He's the one who really has his (butt) hanging on the line," April said. "He has improved as much as any player I've ever had because he's only been a defensive back for about eight months."

Salmon also has shown flashes of excellence. A converted split end, he leads the Trojans with four interceptions. Oliver, though, has pushed him for playing time.

Against Oregon State last week, Oliver intercepted a pass and returned it 66 yards for a touchdown.

April sees room for improvement, obviously, but he does not seem discouraged. When he said, "We have to play better than we have all year in the secondary to beat UCLA," he said it as if he believed it would happen.

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