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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 1996

Cornering the Market : Versatile USC Cornerback Daylon McCutcheon Knows Defense Is Where His Future Awaits

September 04, 1996|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was football practice on a hot afternoon at USC's Howard Jones Field.

Quarterback Brad Otton lofted a long pass down the middle to receiver R. Jay Soward, who leaped high to catch it. Up in the air with him, in a version of football ballet, went defensive backs Rashard Cook and Daylon McCutcheon.

The 5-foot-10, 185-pound McCutcheon leaped the highest and seemed to hang in the air a split-second longer than the two others.

When the ball arrived, McCutcheon's right hand was there to meet it, softly tapping it away from the others.

For the ordinary athlete, it would have been a spectacular play. But McCutcheon, probably the Trojans' most gifted athlete, has made the spectacular his routine.

And if the opener, the 24-7 loss to Penn State, is any indication, Howard Jones Field will be the best place to see McCutcheon show his stuff this season.

Penn State gave McCutcheon the day off Aug. 25 at Giants Stadium. The Nittany Lions threw the ball to McCutcheon's side of the field once.

Explained Penn State offensive coordinator Fran Ganter, "We looked at a lot of film on him, and we decided everything about him scared us, particularly his leaping ability.

"We knew how many yards he'd gained as a high school running back, and the last thing we wanted in that game was him running around with the ball."

Isn't that a little too much respect for a sophomore, a guy who on Saturday at Illinois will play in only his 14th college game, his seventh as a starter?

Maybe, but USC defensive coordinator Keith Burns already ranks him among the nation's best.

"There's probably an elite group of eight to 10 great cornerbacks in the country, and I'd put him with the elite guys in that group," Burns said.

"It's not just the athleticism he shows--the ability to do things that you can't coach--he doesn't get credit he deserves for being a great competitor."

A year ago, there was a sense that McCutcheon, who in 1994 ran for 2,456 yards and a 9.1-yard average as a La Puente Bishop Amat tailback, was being eased into the lineup on defense as a prelude to an eventual shift to tailback.

That didn't happen, but last season the player and Coach John Robinson indicated the plan for this season was for McCutcheon to play at least intermittently as an offensive setback on second or third-and-long plays.

That probably won't happen, either.

At least, not this season.

"Coach Robinson and I talked a few times before spring practice about it, and we both agreed I still have a lot to learn about playing the corner," McCutcheon said.

"I told him I'd be happy to help out any way I could in the event of some kind of emergency, but that I felt I could make a bigger contribution to the team playing corner. He agreed, and it's a closed deal."

Even as a defensive player, McCutcheon turned himself into an offensive weapon last season. He scored two touchdowns, one on an interception return and the other on a 53-yard return of a Northwestern fumble in the Rose Bowl.

Robinson hopes he can bring that explosiveness to USC's kick-return game this year.

No one is calling it an emergency yet, but the Trojans are a bit thin at tailback. Both starter Delon Washington and backup Shawn Walters are on the suspended list for two more games, meaning USC will go again with LaVale Woods and Rodney Sermons at Illinois and, presumably, against Oregon State the following weekend.

That leaves fullback starter Marvin Powell III and his backup, freshman Ted Iacenda, and cornerback-kick returner Chad Morton, who is taking some snaps at tailback this week, on the availability list.

In the Kickoff Classic, McCutcheon was one of only a few USC players who tackled Penn State's Curtis Enis, who gained 241 yards. On third and one in the third quarter, McCutcheon, outweighed by roughly 50 pounds, took him down for no gain.

He was asked about all the USC faithful still grousing about the poor Trojan tackling against Penn State.

"They're right," he said.

"After we watched the film, all the players agreed--we tackled horrible.

"Enis is a great back, but even a good tackler has to tackle smart. And there were some guys out there who weren't giving a 100% effort too. The coaches have talked a lot this week in meetings about our effort level.

"If you have 30 players playing at 100% and another five who are at something less than that, you've got some problems.

"You can have the 11 best athletes in the world line up on defense, but if they're not playing smart, it won't work. Another of our problems back there was too many guys standing around, waiting for someone else to make big plays."

Secondary coach Dennis Thurman, who played nine seasons in the NFL, marvels at McCutcheon's talent.

"Daylon is as natural a football player as I've ever been around," Thurman said.

"He has tools you can't see or touch, but what stands out is, he's just a naturally great football player. He has the physical tools and the mental makeup to play at the next level."

Which explains why he's playing cornerback at USC and not tailback.

"With my size, I think it's more likely I'll be a defensive back in the NFL," he said. "That, plus the fact I felt I'd get to play a lot immediately at SC if I came in as a corner."

He made his football debut as a 9-year-old, so small he could scarcely see out from under his helmet.

"It was a Pop Warner League game at Baldwin Park High School," he said.

"I played for the Rowland Heights Raiders and we were playing the Baldwin Park Roadrunners. On my first carry, I ran through the line . . . and all of a sudden everyone was behind me. It was a long run, and my first touchdown. I decided I liked it."

And best of all, he likes being first.

At USC's first practice last summer, he intercepted the first pass thrown into his area. In the opener against San Jose State, he ran one back 35 yards for a score. And in his first Rose Bowl, he ran that fumble back all the way.

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