- Johnny Curren, WeAreSC, Reporter
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During his first two seasons at USC, Su’a Cravens didn’t necessarily stand out as one of the more vocal members of the Trojans' football team. However, at that time, he didn’t really need to be. A unique playmaker with outstanding instincts and physical tools, the junior safety-turned-linebacker allowed his production on the field do the talking for him.
But with the departure of key defensive cogs like Leonard Williams and Hayes Pullard from last year’s squad, Cravens, following in the footsteps of some of the USC stars who guided him through the early portion of his career, has seized more of a leadership role over the past six months that has been hard not to notice.
"I'm taking on a leadership role that’s not focusing on just my game, but also on those around me, especially the young guys,” Cravens said at Pac-12 media days. “I’ll notice the mistakes they make that I made two years ago, [and] guys like Marqise Lee or George Farmer or Silas Redd would pull me aside, even if they didn’t play the same position, and tell me, ‘you’ve got to do this.’ I'm just trying to do the same thing.”
Cravens, a 2014 All-Pac-12 first-teamer who is a candidate for the Bednarik, Butkus, Lombardi, Lott, Nagurski and Walter Camp awards, will lead a defensive unit this fall that appears to be filled with talent, and more notably, one that is looking to avoid some of the struggles that they went through in Year 1 under USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox -- namely their habit of faltering down the stretch of games.
But Cravens is optimistic that this year’s bunch is poised to take a giant step forward in that regard.
“I feel like we’re a lot more mature than we were last year,” said Cravens, who, along with the rest of his Trojans teammates, will open
fall camp this Saturday. “We weren’t a young defense, but we were new to the playbook and new to the coaching staff we had. We were kind of immature so in the fourth quarter we let games get away from us. So, this year, we’re big on finishing in the fourth quarter, just finishing everything we do, and making sure that we execute to the best of our abilities.”
Cravens is the undeniable face of Wilcox’s group. Having moved from safety to ‘sam’ linebacker prior to last season, he proved to be a natural fit at his new position, racking up 68 tackles, 17 tackles-for-loss (including five sacks) and three interceptions. And with Wilcox continually looking for more ways to utilize Cravens’ talents, there’s reason to believe that he’s going to have an even bigger 2015 campaign.
“I never thought I’d see myself playing linebacker in college. I never thought I’d have the frame to do so, but I got a little heavier, and the coaches saw something in me that I didn’t necessarily see,” said Cravens, who currently weighs in at 232 pounds, after briefly getting down to the 220-pound range earlier this summer. “But once I got moved to that position, it was like, ‘Oh, I can make plays wherever he puts me.’ Coach Wilcox does a great job of just seeing offensive game plans, and then scheming around that, and getting me in a position where I have the opportunity to make a play no matter where I’m at on the field. And he’ll put me at safety, he’ll put me at rush end, or he’ll put me at boundary corner, and somehow, some way, I’m always in the play.”
With high-profile players like Cravens, cornerback/wide receiver Adoree’ Jackson and quarterback Cody Kessler spearheading a squad marked by improved depth, expectations are starting to mount for the 2015 season. Last week, the conference media picked Steve Sarkisian’s team to win the Pac-12 title, and some even pointed toward a potential return to the kind of success that USC enjoyed under Pete Carroll.
But knowing very well that there is still much work to do and sounding every bit like the team leader that he now is, Cravens says that he isn’t about to allow himself, or his teammates, let the attention get to their heads.
“It’s nice to be recognized, but at the same time it’s just a projection at the beginning of the season,” Cravens said. “It doesn’t really mean anything. We’ve got to go into every week with the mindset that we’ll take it game-by-game and make sure that we don’t look ahead.”