Like most football players at USC, T.J (which, of course, stands for Tim, Jr.) saw limited time as a true freshman. Whereas most athletes are forced to take a redshirt season to acclimate to the increased speed and physicality of FBS football, T.J. saw action in every one of USC's 13 games in 2009 as a backup strong safety and special teams performer.
He quickly rose up to a starter at free safety in year two, leading the team with 89 tackles, while also contributing three tackles for loss, a sack, seven passes broken up, three interceptions and a blocked kick. Though his statistics (67 tackles, 2.5 TFL, five PBUs, three INTs) didn't blossom in his second season as a starter, McDonald proved to be a more consistent all-around defender.
Statistically-speaking, McDonald enjoyed the best season of his career in 2012, leading the team with 112 tackles, including 6.5 for loss, a sack and another two interceptions. A closer view, however, shows some of the cracks in the armor which has led to former USC safety Taylor Mays to struggle thus far in the NFL. It didn't help his cause that McDonald was a poor fit in former USC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's "Tampa 2" scheme.
The biggest concern might simply be the spread passing attacks so popular in today's NFL make long-legged "in the box" safeties like McDonald a liability in coverage. If entering the draft 10 or 20 years ago, he might rank as a potential first or second round choice. Now, he could slip to the third day and will have to be drafted by a team with a specific plan for using his unique skill-set.
Aggressive defender who attacks the line of scrimmage when he reads run. Physically takes on and shed blockers and is a lights-out hitter. Brings his hips to explode through the ballcarrier, yet wrapping his arms securely. Possesses good straight-line speed with a burst to close and the length to make tackles of ballcarriers seemingly out of his reach. Uses his height and physicality well to compete for jump balls. Good ball-skills. Dependable, no-nonsense player.
Weaknesses: Long, lanky build that makes him a step slow in transitioning. Has to gather himself out of his cuts, giving receivers room to gain separation. Seemed confused in Kiffin's scheme. Too often drifted out of position by attempting to read the quarterback's eyes, leaving huge gaps in the secondary for the high-octane passing attacks in the Pac-12 to exploit.
Had a generally underwhelming performance throughout the week of practice at the Senior Bowl and could be losing momentum as the draft approaches. Underwent surgery to his ankle (undisclosed) following 2010 spring.
Compares To: Kam Chancellor, SS, Seattle Seahawks -- While not quite as imposing as the 6-3, 232-pound Chancellor, McDonald's size and physicality is sure to intrigue teams looking for an enforcer against the running game and one athletic enough to handle the bigger hybrid receivers now running down the seam as tight ends in the NFL. Like Chancellor, a former free safety at Virginia Tech, McDonald's best fit in the NFL would be as an "in the box" type rather than playing over the top.