Early last fall, the choice was obvious for a quarterback trying to dissect the USC defense. At one corner was Shareece Wright, a fifth-year senior and eventual third-round NFL draft pick. At the other was freshman Nickell Robey, a top 150 recruit from Frostproof (Fla.) High who, at 5'8" and 162 pounds, looked less intimidating than most of the Trojans' beat writers.
And so the season began with a torching. Hawaii took advantage of USC's imbalanced and inexperienced secondary, throwing for 459 yards before losing 49--36. Two weeks later Minnesota burned Robey for a 31-yard score. A week after that, Washington State went after him too, for a 29-yard TD on its opening drive. But on the Cougars' next possession, Robey made an interception and returned it for a touchdown. He added a second pick before halftime. All of a sudden, Robey says now, "Everything started to slow down."
USC still gave up the Pac-10's most passing touchdowns (30) and passing yards (259.5 per game) in stumbling to an 8--5 finish, but the defense's performance was understandable. Other than Wright, no one in the secondary had started a college game before the season. (Robey was the first true freshman to start a USC season opener at cornerback in more than 50 years.) "Inexperience was a big factor," junior safety T.J. McDonald admits. "But now things are looking better."
Exhibit A is the former weak link. Robey led the team in picks (four) and may be the team's best athlete. Plus, the sophomore refined his footwork, sharpened his jamming technique and gained 12 pounds in the off-season. "Nickell is completely different," says coach Lane Kiffin. "He's ready to take the next step."
This more experienced team also has additional motivation: the NCAA sanctions that will keep the Trojans out of a BCS bowl. After the punishment was announced on June 10, 2010, Kiffin left a group of four key players—McDonald, quarterback Matt Barkley, defensive tackle Christian Tupou and tight end Rhett Ellison—to lead a defiant players-only meeting. "They told us, We're going to beat everybody," Robey recalls. And that starts with the cornerback not letting anyone beat him.
24 at Arizona State
13 at California
22 at Notre Dame
4 at Colorado
19 at Oregon
Has NFL size (6'7", 295) and lots of experience: The redshirt junior is one of only two returning O-line starters.
The time is now for the third-year starter, who must improve his TD-INT ratio (26--12 in 2010).
The Trojans' top receiver in 2010 (65 catches, 792 yards) should be an All-America.
Coach Lane Kiffin (2nd year)
2010 Record 8--5 (5--4 in Pac-10)
Final AP Rank NR
Returning Starters 14
Offense 6, Defense 8
RIC TAPIA/ICON SMI
The first true freshman to start a season at cornerback for the Trojans in over 50 years, Robey (37) was picked on by opponents—until he became a pick machine.
RIC TAPIA/ICON SMI