Max Williams declares for NFL draft as new USC defense emerges

This was Max Williams’ dream. Now the redshirt senior is ready to chase a new one.

USC’s stalwart safety announced his intention to declare for the NFL draft Friday as the Trojans continued preparation for the Holiday Bowl on Wednesday. Because of injuries and the pandemic, Williams had eligibility for a sixth season, but he never thought he would be a 24-year-old in college.

So “I gotta move on to bigger things,” Williams said Friday.

“I felt like I’ve gave my all to this university for the five years I’ve been here,” he added. “I’ve overcame a lot, I’ve played through a lot. It was always a dream coming to USC, being a Trojan.”

The former Serra High star will play his last game in a USC jersey Wednesday in San Diego’s Petco Park against No. 15 Louisville. The bowl game will put the finishing touches on a season — or a career for players such as Williams — while also serving as an unofficial tryout for players returning, especially on defense, where the Trojans are retooling the coaching staff and player personnel.

“With the situation being what it is here, I think it ultimately is a test of who you are,” safety Jaylin Smith said.

With Williams leaving, the Trojans will have to replace at least three of their starting five defensive backs. The competition will set a foundation for the future of USC’s defense under new coordinator D’Anton Lynn.

While assessing the defense, which was in desperate need of a reset after one of the program’s worst statistical seasons, coach Lincoln Riley identified defensive line and secondary as two areas of focus for the early signing period that opened Wednesday. The Trojans addressed the defensive front by signing six players, led by edge rusher Kameryn Fountain. The secondary will be a mix of incoming freshmen and transfers.

Along with two safeties and two corners in their signing class, the Trojans have four defensive backs committed from the transfer portal. Safety Kamari Ramsey and cornerback John Humphrey won’t have to make a long move as the former UCLA defensive backs are set to follow Lynn, their former defensive coordinator, in a crosstown migration.

Ramsey, a redshirt freshman, started 11 games for the Bruins, and, with three years of eligibility remaining, gives the Trojans a long-term option at safety. Humphrey, a senior, recorded the first interceptions of his career last season during Lynn’s defensive renaissance at UCLA.

Humphrey is USC’s second incoming transfer cornerback, joining Mississippi State’s DeCarlo Nicholson. The Trojans will need to focus on the key position that has been in flux for years.

Five USC cornerbacks have been selected in the NFL draft in the last 10 years. Only Adoree’ Jackson, the 18th selection in 2017, was taken in the first two rounds. Mekhi Blackmon, a Colorado transfer who was selected 103rd this year, was a Trojan for only one year.

During the same time, Washington sent 10 cornerbacks to the NFL through the draft with eight hearing their names called in the first two rounds. Oregon, Utah and Oregon State are tied with USC for second in the conference with five draft selections at the position.

USC’s best results at corner have come from transfers. The team’s top corners in both of Riley’s seasons have been one-year transfers imported from other Pac-12 schools. After Blackmon, the Trojans turned to Christian Roland-Wallace, who developed into a three-year starter at Arizona before recording 37 tackles and two interceptions with the Trojans in his last year of college eligibility.

Former five-star prospect Domani Jackson was expected to rise to the top spot during his career, but the sophomore struggled to regain his form following an injury in his final high school season and announced his intention to transfer this month.

Along with the transfers, USC signed two cornerbacks Wednesday, including one from a familiar family.

Marcelles Williams, Max’s youngest brother, signed with the Trojans as a four-star prospect and a top-five cornerback in the country. The St. John Bosco High player is expected to join the Trojans in time for spring practices, and fellow cornerback Braylon Conley, another four-star recruit, will join in the fall.

Max considered returning for his final season to play with his brother, but it was never a goal. Marcelles, the third Williams brother to sign with a Division I program after middle brother Macen, who plays cornerback at Arizona State, was always the baby of the family. They grew up rooting for USC, and the five years Max spent there were a dream come true.

“It was also his dream to become a Trojan,” Max said. “I’m excited for him. I feel like he can do big things.”

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