USC Football

How Far Can Craig Naivar Take USC's Safeties?

June 15, 2020

When Craig Naivar was introduced to the USC media a few months ago, he was asked what his ideal safety looked like. In response, Naivar mentioned former USC Safety Marvel Tell, who Naivar coached against in 2017 and 2018. It was high praise for the now Indianapolis Colts cornerback, especially when you consider that Naivar has had two safeties selected in the last two NFL drafts. With this being said, I took a deeper look into the film and play styles to see what made Brandon Jones and DeShon Elliott pro level players, and how they compare to USC’s current safety duo of Isaiah Pola-Mao and Talanoa Hufanga.

Brandon Jones(2019 3rd Round Selection - Miami Dolphins):

As the top rated safety in the Class of 2016, Brandon Jones entered Austin with high expectations. Over the next few seasons, Jones would play multiple safety spots for the Longhorns and notched second team All-Big 12 honors in 2019 after racking up 86 tackles, 4.5 for loss, a sack, two interceptions, and four pass breakups. While his lack of coverage skills held him back, Jones flashed enough potential as an aggressive defensive back to be selected in the 3rd round by the Miami Dolphins. Taking a deeper dive into his film reminded me so much of Talanoa Hufanga in terms of an attacking mindset and the agility to execute as an open field tackler. Take for instance this clip from 2018 where Jones quickly diagnoses the toss to Stephen Carr and is able to beat him to the edge and get the stop.

In just ten games last year, Hufanga racked up 90 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 3 pass breakups, 3.5 sacks, and 7.5 TFLs. Time and time again Hufanga proved himself as one of the more sure tacklers on the Trojan defense, including this stop against Utah where he comes across the field and cleanly knocks down the Ute who may have scored if he missed. While injuries have hampered Hufanga throughout his career, it will be interesting to see if he can take another leap in his junior season and become a Day 1 or Day 2 selection potentially in next year’s draft under Naivar’s tutelage. 

DeShon Elliott(2018 6th Round Selection - Baltimore Ravens):

If the name DeShon Elliott rings a bell for Trojan fans it’s because he enjoyed playing against USC during his Texas career. During the 2017 matchup in the Coliseum, Elliott picked off Sam Darnold twice, returning one for a touchdown.

While Elliott wasn’t as highly touted as Jones, he was still an upper 4-star prospect and a Top 10 Safety nationwide. When he arrived at Texas, he took a leap and was chosen as a Jim Thrope award finalist in 2017 after nabbing 6 interceptions, 9 pass breakups, and 8.5 tackle for loss. Ball hawking safeties are a premium at any level of football, and while Isaiah Pola-Mao isn’t quite a Thorpe finalist level player like Elliott yet, his progress and flashes in the 2019 season suggest that he could be in for a huge 2020 season. In his first truly healthy season at USC, Pola-Mao had 73 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 6 pass breakups, and 4 interceptions. He improved tremendously as a tackler as the season went on and seemed to have a knack for being around the football, as shown by this interception against Oregon.

Hufanga and Pola-Mao make up one of the better safety tandems in the conference, and under a positional coach with a proven track record like Craig Naivar, it will be interesting to see if they can reach new heights in 2020.


Tags: Football
subscribe Verify your student status
See Subscription Benefits
Trial only available to users who have never subscribed or participated in a previous trial.