Trent McDuffie settled into a routine during his first spring at St. John Bosco High School.
Before his senior season, McDuffie transferred to the football powerhouse in Bellflower, California, from Servite High School, located about 15 miles away in Anaheim. In those first months, he spent his afternoons at track practice — he could run a 10.8 in the 100-meter dash — before quickly exchanging his running shoes for football cleats.
Then McDuffie would seek out Bosco defensive backs coach Colin Lockett at football practice. He would stand right next to him, hip-to-hip on the sideline, and start asking questions. He wanted to know about Bosco’s coverages and the coaches’ preferred technique and how the Braves wanted to play certain downs and distances. His intensity struck Lockett. Most transfers lean toward the quiet side, remaining passive until they feel comfortable in the program.
That wasn’t the case with McDuffie. Not even close.
“He was jumping up there with some of our best receivers, going toe-to-toe with those guys,” Lockett said during a phone interview on Thursday. “That just showed me that this guy, he’s ready to make an impact for this football team — and he did.”
If that sounds familiar, that’s because Washington head coach Chris Petersen and defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake have been offering similar evaluations of McDuffie for months. They’ve repeatedly said the moment hasn’t been too big for him, echoing a phrase they’ve also used to describe starting safety Cameron Williams and the handful of other freshmen who have seen consistent playing time this season.
McDuffie, who wasn’t an early enrollee, didn’t have the benefit of spring practice. But that hasn’t stopped him from making an impression.
“When you don’t have a spring football, there’s a lot more unknown about them,” Petersen said after practice on Thursday. “You’re just teaching them the system in fall camp and compete and see guys make good plays, and then you give them a little more and a little more. Sometimes a little more is too much. A little more hasn’t been too much for (McDuffie).”
McDuffie has played in all four games this season, starting for the first time against Hawaii when the Huskies opened the game in a package with six defensive backs. He started again a week later against BYU, this time over redshirt freshman Kyler Gordon. McDuffie didn’t waste the opportunity — something his high school coaches could have predicted. He forced a fumble and then recovered it in the third quarter of the Huskies’ 45-19 victory over the Cougars. He also had four tackles and a key block on Aaron Fuller’s punt return for a touchdown.
By the time the depth chart was released for Saturday’s game against USC, there was a big ‘OR’ between the names of McDuffie and Gordon, who started the first three games of the season.
When McDuffie arrived at UW, he joined a secondary overflowing with talent. It was reminiscent of his time at Bosco, a team filled with high-level Division I recruits. But McDuffie wasn’t daunted in those first days with the Braves, Lockett said, and he wasn’t going to settle for playing time. He wanted to make an impact. He wanted to start.
McDuffie wouldn’t be denied in high school — or, it turns out, with the Huskies.
“He’s the kind of guy that takes a great amount of pride in the opportunities that he gets, and when he does get those opportunities, he’s going to go out there and make the most of them,” said Bosco head coach Jason Negro. “I’m just super proud of that fact as it is. I had no doubt that he was going to be one of the top recruits that (UW) had coming in with this particular class.”
‘He’s a sponge’
Ask any member of Bosco’s coaching staff about McDuffie and you’ll get a different version of the same answer: He desperately wants to be coached. He doesn’t shy away from feedback; he craves it.
Defensive coordinator Chris King kept returning to that quality during a phone conversation on Tuesday. At every meeting, just like clockwork, McDuffie would slide into a chair right next to King or Lockett. Then he’d pull out a notebook, pencil at the ready, and start asking questions.
“The film would show he covered the guy,” King said, “and he’d be like, ‘Hey, did I use the right leverage? Hey, can I use the press technique there or should I use this technique?’ He just wanted to be great. We preach that to our kids, and obviously not everybody ends up doing that. But he was one that you could tell wanted to be great, wanted to be coached.”
At Bosco, it took McDuffie just weeks to understand concepts and coverages the other defensive backs had been studying for years. McDuffie quickly became a versatile weapon. Negro used him a cornerback and at nickel. McDuffie returned punts. He even saw some time at running back. He was, in Negro’s words, “one of the most dynamic football players to come through our program.” Between the weight room and the film room, Negro said he put in a “ridiculous” amount of work to make that happen.
“We’re not a big team on playing guys both ways,” Negro said. “For him to be able to handle that mental load and then go out there in a physical capacity and not tire, not wear down, stay strong whether it’s the first quarter or the fourth quarter was something that really stood out to me and stood out to our coaches.”
Bosco finished the 2018 season 13-1, spending time as the No. 1 team in the nation and only falling in the state championship game to Mater Dei. McDuffie suffered a thigh contusion in that game. But after fellow cornerback Chris Steele — who will play for USC against the Huskies on Saturday — blocked a field goal early in the fourth quarter, McDuffie still scooped up the ball and ran it back 76-yards for a touchdown to pull the Braves within one point, 14-13.
During a 56-6 victory over San Clemente earlier that season, McDuffie scored three touchdowns: One rushing, one on a punt return and another off an interception. He also had a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. McDuffie finished his senior year with 37 tackles, three interceptions, 13 passes defended, three fumble recoveries and one forced fumble, according to MaxPreps. He also had 83 rushing yards and a touchdown on 13 carries and averaged 19.2 yards per punt return.
“He’s a sponge,” Negro said. “He’s going to absorb as much as he possibly can. He’s going to take the coaching and not look at it as criticism. He understands the difference between criticism and coaching.
“I think at the end of the day, if you have a guy that’s as big of a learner as he is, he’s going to have a lot of success. That’s what he was able to display to us and the reason why he was able to be as versatile as he was.”
‘He’s just sharp in all aspects’
McDuffie came to UW as a four-star recruit considered by 247Sports to be the No. 7 cornerback in the nation and No. 11 player in California. His list of offers spanned the country — Alabama, USC, Michigan, Notre Dame, Oregon, Stanford, and LSU, to name a few. He’s wasted no time living up to the hype.
“He’s awesome,” Lake said Wednesday. “He’s very, very detailed. He’s a quick learner, quick study. He really puts in the film time that’s needed to understand our techniques and our coverages and what we’re going to do and our checks. It’s been awesome to watch him in practice to be able to pick up on things and see plays as they develop. He’s been able to that in games now as well.”
When McDuffie was leaving Bosco, all three coaches predicted he would play during his first season at UW. There was never any doubt.
“There was something really about Trent that you just knew,” King said. “When you graduate kids in a program like (Bosco), there’s certain kids that play right away; there’s certain kids that don’t play right away. He’s got all the intangibles, the study habits, the weight room. That’s a big one a lot of kids don’t understand. He’s a big, strong kid. That, the film study, the knack for the game. He’s always had enough speed. You’ve got to have speed to play corner, and you got to have speed there to play right away.”
McDuffie has impressed UW senior defensive back Myles Bryant with his maturity. His poise was evident from the earliest days of fall camp, and Bryant could immediately tell he’d been well-coached during his high school career.
“He understands that he’s here to get an education as well as play football,” Bryant said. “He’s just sharp in all aspects. I feel like he pretty much checks off every box when it comes to being a football player as well as being a person. I’m excited to see him grow the rest of the season and the rest of his career here.”
With every game McDuffie played at Bosco, Negro watched his confidence grow. That’s what strikes Bryant the most about the way McDuffie plays: How self-assured he is. He understands his job. He believes in his technique. He doesn’t hesitate. It’s rare, Lockett said, to find a young player who makes it all look so easy. That’s even become a running joke between the two.
“I always tell him, ‘Why you always making it look so easy?’ Lockett said. “He’ll say, ‘I don’t know, coach. I’ve just been going with the flow.’”
Negro can explain it, though. For any cornerback, he said, it all comes down to the same two things: “A short memory and a lot of confidence.”
“I like to call it inner arrogance.,” Negro said. “They have to have a belief in themselves that they are going to be able to defend any receiver. And if they do get beat on a particular play, they got to be able to have a really short memory and come back the next play and be able to compete again.
“That’s one of the skill sets that Trent has that kind of separated him and the reason why Coach Lake has such confidence putting him in the game.”