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Lincoln Riley and Alex Grinch’s trust in Tackett Curtis finally pays off

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LOS ANGELES — By all indications, scout team ball carriers’ participation in defensive drills is rewarded with care. With grace. With non-threatening hits from USC headhunters. At least, from what reporters are allowed to see during the viewing portions of practice; wide receiver Brenden Rice once referred to Tuesday practices as “Bloody Tuesday.”

Regardless, in one Wednesday drill on Sept. 27, linebackers approached and tackled ball carriers as if they were bubble-wrapping pieces of fine china. The focus, of course, seemed more about the path to the ball.

Then freshman Tackett Curtis stepped up, hit an oncoming Raleek Brown, and spun him to the turf.

“I mean, that’s always been part of the reason why I like playing football,” Curtis said after USC’s victory at Arizona State, with a shy smile more indicative of his age than a 225-pound bulging frame. “There’s certain stuff you can do on the football field you can’t do in real life, so I feel like that’s just a huge part of playing football, for me.”

“Once I can hone in my aggressiveness and make sure I’m in the right spot and play that same way,” Curtis continued, “I feel like that’s (when) I reach … closer to my ceiling.”

Joe Cryer, a high school teammate of Curtis’ at Many High in Louisiana, said Curtis “always had that chip on his shoulder about playing mean.” Just was in his nature, born a little man asking his dad for a pull-up bar and just loving to hit. So mean, in fact, that USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said back in September that in instructing his players to “violently uppercut” the football as a means to force fumbles, he had to preface with Tackett that didn’t mean an uppercut at the opponent’s face.

Playing mean, though, only goes so far against multilayered offensive schemes in college football. In his second game, Curtis was ejected for targeting. In his sixth game, he got steamrolled by Arizona running back DJ Williams. Since starting the first game of the season, he’s played more snaps than any other inside linebacker aside from Mason Cobb – somewhat questionably at times. The returning Eric Gentry and Raesjon Davis both have looked better in pass coverage, and Curtis’ percentage of missed tackles is the second-highest behind Davis among USC’s linebackers thus far, per Pro Football Focus.

But after disappearing at times in the middle of the field – Curtis figuring out how to balance instinct with technique – things clicked into place on Saturday night against Notre Dame, when he made eight tackles and several one-on-one stops of Fighting Irish running backs who were trying to hit a hole.

“The biggest thing for me that I feel like I’m mostly getting a little bit better at, is getting a pass or a run read … over time, reps, I’m getting more familiar if they’re going to pass on this play or throw on this play, so I can just break faster,” Curtis said on Thursday.

Indeed, he seemed more consistently in position to be a playmaker on Saturday, a huge lift in the middle of USC’s defense. It’s been no secret that USC’s staff is high on Curtis – Coach Lincoln Riley himself made the trek down to Many during his recruitment – and the freshman just “kept swinging,” Grinch said, when asked about the coaches’ trust paying off in starting Curtis as opposed to Gentry or Lee.

“I think you saw glimpses of what that kid’s going to be,” Grinch said.

No ‘told-you-so’ from Grinch

Glimpses appeared Saturday, too, of an improved USC defense that Riley hung his public hat on last Tuesday. Curtis and Cobb patrolled the middle; Christian Roland-Wallace played the best game any member of USC’s secondary has had in 2023; Bryson Shaw and Jaylin Smith wrapped up on second-level tackles.

Grinch, though, for all the national criticism chirping at him and his unit, didn’t take any sort of prideful stance Tuesday when asked if he felt he saw progress.

“I absolutely did, but those are hollow words,” Grinch said.

Zion Branch prepares to step up

Safeties Max Williams and Shaw, two of Grinch’s most trusted veterans in the secondary, exited Saturday with apparent injuries. Grinch said USC would “see how the week goes” with both to determine their status for this weekend against Utah, and he pivoted quickly to praising fill-in Zion Branch, who has been searching for opportunities ever since returning from a season-ending ACL injury his freshman year. That seems to indicate, then, that Branch will play an increased role against Utah.

“Definitely ready,” Branch said Tuesday.

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