LOS ANGELES — Ykili Ross sat in coverage when he saw one receiver starting a hitch route.
As the receiver curled back toward quarterback Matt Fink, Ross inched forward as well.
“I looked at the quarterback,” he said, “and immediately broke on it.”
The pass from Fink was tipped during the 11-on-11 period by defensive end Christian Rector before Ross snagged it for an interception. He returned it for a touchdown.
It was one of two interceptions on Thursday by Ross, a redshirt sophomore safety who is pushing to be USC’s nickelback this season.
Asked about the sequence a day later, Ross credited his awareness, bringing up an oft-cited phrase from secondary coach Ronnie Bradford.
“Know the defense so well, you see where the offense is trying to break you down,” Ross repeated.
Through the first week of training camp, the Trojans’ defense has come away with its share of interceptions. In the three practices prior to Friday, it had picked off nine passes, including four from starting quarterback Sam Darnold. There were no turnovers Friday.
Most of the players credited familiarity. They are entering their second season under defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. They say they know where to line up, can move quickly and can better anticipate where the offense might go.
“It comes back to us being more comfortable,” junior linebacker Cameron Smith said. “It’s not anything we changed differently. It’s now we have the ability, because we’re not there feeling it out. We’re just out there playing ball. I think those big plays, and interceptions, and fumbles, and those things happen when you’re in the right spot.”
Smith intercepted a pass by Darnold in a 7-on-7 drill during Monday’s practice.
“We can come out here and line up and move very fast,” redshirt junior cornerback Ajene Harris said, “because we’re pretty much used to this playbook.”
Harris, like Smith, said more players are better positioned.
“I feel like I’m going to continue to be in better position, too,” he added. “That goes for the whole secondary.”
Last season, USC forced 20 turnovers, including 14 interceptions. That put the Trojans in the middle of the pack among Pac-12 teams (sixth) and among the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams (60th) in turnovers gained.
This fall, Smith believes they can force more.
“That’d be huge for our defense to take the next step,” he said.
Smith called it an “emphasis” in training camp.