LOS ANGELES -- As the Trojans headed toward the exit on Brian Kennedy/Howard Jones Field after USC’s first spring practice of the year, no player had a more pronounced smile on his face than Josh Shaw.
After lining up as the team’s starting cornerback for the final seven games of 2012, the Palmdale (Calif.) product was back at strong safety on Tuesday -- the position where he began his Trojans career after transferring in from Florida a little more than a year ago.
And the 6-foot-1 redshirt junior didn’t just go through the motions, either. Running with the first defense, Shaw was one of the stars of the day. During the team’s 11-on-11 team session, he showcased his playmaking skills while also providing a heady veteran presence.
“It feels good,” Shaw said after practice. “I’ve really embraced this opportunity, being back at safety. I’ve embraced being able to put guys in certain situations and just taking the next step in the development of my game.”
With strong tackling skills and a ball-hawking mentality, Shaw has always regarded himself as a safety first, despite performing solidly at cornerback last season. So with the team holding an open tryout of sorts with the graduation of last year's starting safeties in T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling, Shaw jumped at the opportunity to make the switch.
“The competition is wide open,” Shaw said. “Everyone has a clean slate, and right now, I’m just out here trying to grind. We’re trying to take advantage of every opportunity that we can as a secondary. Especially me, I’m trying to do everything that I can because I want to lead this group -- I am going to lead this group. I’m going to come out here everyday and put forth my best effort and make sure that my teammates see me doing it as well. “
Battling with new arrival Su’a Cravens, among others, Shaw has an edge when it comes to experience. And having now played extensively at cornerback, he’s a wealth of knowledge about the entire secondary.
“It helped me a lot, just knowing wide receiver splits,” Shaw said of playing at cornerback. “Right now, I can look out there and see if the Z receiver is out there, and if his outside foot is back, I can tell the corner, 'Alert the slant right now -- three-step slant.' So, it definitely helped me a lot, and I’m trying to pass it all on to these corners -- just trying to help them any way that I can.”
Shaw’s emergence as a leader is something he’s grown into, and it figures to be crucial as a young and inexperienced Trojans’ secondary adjusts to the team’s new defense, masterminded by Clancy Pendergast.
“I love him,” Shaw said of Pendergast, who will also coach the defensive backs. “I couldn’t ask for a better defensive coordinator. His style is very, very aggressive. He likes things to be done right, and he likes it to be done right the first time that you do it. His scheme is really diverse and I think it fits great for this defense. You’re going to see a lot of guys flying around and making plays.”
And on Tuesday, that certainly appeared to be the case. Playing with a renewed burst, the USC secondary looked like a quicker, more enthusiastic unit, and one that has Shaw thinking optimistically when it comes to the future of the group.
“There’s a lot of new guys, but I think for the first day, the communication was great today,” Shaw said. “A lot of guys were flying around, guys were making plays and we were very smart with our adjustments. Now we’ve just got to go watch film and build on it.”
With Shaw leading the way, there’s every reason to believe that’s exactly what will happen.