When it comes to preparing for the NFL draft, all of the pre-draft evaluations and making that jump from college to the pros, USC safety T.J. McDonald feels like he has a head start.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder already has played in a pro-style defense, coached by one of the most well-respected defensive minds in Monte Kiffin. And McDonald had an up close and personal look at a pretty talented NFL safety – his father, Tim McDonald, a 13-year veteran and six-time Pro Bowl selection for the Cardinals and the 49ers, with whom he won a Super Bowl in 1994.
T.J. McDonald – one of 10 defensive backs on the North team during this week’s Senior Bowl showcase – recalls watching film with his father and learning what to look for in an offense. Kiffin further schooled him in how to study opponents and prepare for game days.
The knowledge passed on by both helped McDonald start his final three seasons at USC, earn All-America status as a junior and lead the Trojans with 89 tackles while recording three interceptions as a senior.
“As far as mentally, I feel like I’m ahead of the curve because I played for Monte Kiffin, and have been introduced and played in NFL schemes, and I have a role model in my father…. It just helps to really talk to him about football, and watch it with him all the time. I understand concepts, and that’s something that helps me take that extra step and helps me get there a step sooner.”
McDonald added: “I learned just how to watch film. A lot of guys watch film, but they don’t really know how, as far as what to watch for, what base, what gap, what to chart, what to key on; breaking down the small stuff, like is the offensive tackle leaning forward, for the run, or is he leaning back for the pass? How the quarterback looks, splits and routes. It’s helped me and I’m able to put together a better picture in my head and it helps me get there faster.”
McDonald expects that his approach to the game and his versatility will make him attractive to NFL teams.
Kiffin used him in a variety of ways. McDonald lined up close to the line of scrimmage and blitzed off the edge, played farther back in the box like a linebacker, matched up with receivers one-on-one and played farther upfield as a free safety.
“This year, my role definitely expanded. I had the most tackles I’ve ever had in my career,” McDonald says. “Even though we had a tough season, I felt like I developed more as a player than I had any year.”
McDonald says that coverage skills come naturally for him but he wants to become more sound in that department. He has no doubt he can succeed in the NFL. He believes his skills are similar to those of a number of pros and works to incorporate the talents of the greats into his own game.
‘I don’t pattern my game after any one player, because I feel like I have my own game,” McDonald says. “But I watch a lot of [San Francisco’s] Dashon Goldson and Baltimore’s Bernard Pollard (both safeties with similar size and quickness), and of course, I study a lot of Troy [Polomalu] and Ed Reed. I just take bits and pieces of all their games and try to roll it into mine. I just keep working to get better every day.”