- Greg Katz, Columnist, WeAreSC.com
LOS ANGELES -- As the USC Trojans take a week off from spring practice for Spring Break, one of the bright spots thus far has been the play of sophomore safety John Plattenburg, who is working hard to help reinvent a defense that is striving to overcome the losses of All-America defensive tackle Leonard Williams and standout middle linebacker Hayes Pullard.
Seeing significant action as a true freshman at safety and on special teams, Plattenburg started six of the Trojans' final seven games, three times as a free safety and three times as a strong safety. Overall, he appeared in 10 games, although a strained thigh caused him to miss the game against California.
Although the petroleum engineering major made significant strides in 2014 and is not considered a safety issue, he knows there's still much work to be done.
"I want to improve on almost everything like my ball skills, my eye discipline for sure, also being able to do things I wasn't able to do," said Plattenburg. "I need to work on my man coverage and work my zone coverage and disguising and things like that and being more of a vocal leader and trying to fall into a more a natural communicator, role leader."
Playing in the Los Angeles Coliseum as a true freshman is obviously a whole lot different that playing in a high school setting, but Plattenburg said there is a key to overcoming the difficult transition.
"The most difficult thing is just having confidence in learning and knowing the plays, and calling it out to everybody, especially when you're in the Coliseum and 90,000 people," said Plattenburg, who said he's 5-foot-11 and 183 pounds.
"It also takes a lot of push from guys like [teammates] Gerald Bowman, Leon McQuay, and Su'a [Cravens]. They helped me really a lot overall just to have confidence in myself to make these calls and just get the plays done."
In listening to Plattenburg give a detailed analysis of his game, it certainly sounds like both he and second-year secondary coach Keith Heyward, who himself was a distinguished four-year letter-winning corner at Oregon State, are on the same page.
"He's a smart player and he played a lot last year as a true freshman," Heyward said. "He played really, really consistent and the most physical safety out of the group. He's kind of taken on a leadership role this spring and a little bit more vocal. I anticipate him getting better and better in each practice."
One of the ways Plattenburg is improving is that he practices against some of the best wide receivers in college football, pass-catchers that were once at or near the top of many national recruiting lists.
So who gives No. 24 the biggest challenge out on Cromwell Field?
"Steven Mitchell, of course, and Ajene Harris and even when I go against Adoree' [Jackson]," Plattenburg said. "They all have a little something they bring in their game. I've got to work on different things in able to adapt.
"I have to be able to read them and their heads, and then the stuff they like to do. I have to regulate their speed because in a game you're playing down with a man in the slot, and it's a real competition so I don't get burned down the field 50 yards. Everybody pretty much brings a great set of skills."
Plattenburg believes the 2015 Trojans secondary will be a force in the Pac-12 and isn't shy in believing and asserting they have big potential.
"We're going to be solid," Plattenburg said. "I feel we're going to be great. Of course, we're still early into spring. We're going to be nice."
The much-traveled Trojans safety, who started his prep career as a sophomore in Houston, Texas (Lamar High), moved to Corona, California (Centennial High) as a junior, and then back to Houston Lamar for his senior season, gives credit to one particular coach along the way that helped mold his career.
"Coach Matt Logan (Corona, Calif./ Centennial) is probably the best coach I've ever had," Plattenburg said. "I call him ‘The Guru' because if it weren't for him, I wouldn't be playing defense. I would probably still be playing running back."
Now that Plattenburg has a year under his belt as a college safety, what advice does he have for USC's incoming class of 2015, many of whom will arrive in the summer?
"Just get your mind ready because it's going to overwhelming," Plattenburg said. "Coach Wilcox (defensive coordinator) was talking to us in meetings this morning and told us there is a difference between empathy and sympathy. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. Last year we didn't have numbers, but nobody is going to feel sorry for us. You have to get the job done no matter how you feel about it."
And listening to Plattenburg speak, it sure sounds like he's ready to get the job done.