USC’s versatile Ajene Harris finds path to field via rise of nickel defense – Orange County Register

LOS ANGELES — Ajene Harris was a quarterback in high school, a pretty accomplished one too.

As a senior in 2013, Harris was voted the L.A. City Section player of the year and led Crenshaw to a City Division I championship.

He arrived at USC the next fall, though not as a passer.

Harris, a skilled athlete who was also a defensive back at Crenshaw, started out as a receiver with the Trojans.

“I wanted to play quarterback, but that’s not what they needed,” he said. “I was just happy to have the opportunity.”

At first, the plan worked well enough.

Harris quickly saw the field as a freshman in 2014. He made his first start as a slot receiver in the fourth game against Oregon State. Hopes rose. Then, he strained a hamstring and missed most of the remainder of the season.

The setback was compounded a year later. Harris underwent season-ending hip surgery and redshirted.

“It was a tough time,” Harris said. “I had to just sit and wait to get healthy.”

Over time, he slipped on the depth chart, so he pitched another position switch to Coach Clay Helton prior to the 2016 season. How about trying cornerback? Harris thought the Trojans lacked depth there. Helton agreed.

The move ultimately benefited both sides.

When last season began, Harris toiled behind other starters. Before USC hosted Arizona State in its fifth game, he served as the scout team quarterback in preparation to face Manny Wilkins, the Sun Devils’ dual-threat signal caller.

But Harris soon stood to gain from one development: USC, like many teams throughout college football, has used its “nickel” defense, the formation that includes five defensive backs, at a growing frequency.

Over its nine-game winning streak to end last season, the Trojans lined up in their nickel formation more than 95 percent of the time, according to information collected by, a website. Through three games this season, it is 81 percent, including all 75 snaps in Saturday’s double-overtime win over Texas.

“There is a trend for more nickel,” said Nick Aliotti, the Pac-12 Networks analyst and former Oregon defensive coordinator.

Aliotti added, “People believe with the fast-paced spread offense that they must have a better athlete (on the field).”

For USC, its extra athlete is now Harris, the redshirt junior who has for the past seven games been implanted as its starting nickel corner.

“It’s nice,” Harris said. “It’s more of a personality position, I feel like….

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