2011 USC Preview – Defense
USC FS T.J. McDonald
USC FS T.J. McDonald
Posted May 20, 2011

CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - USC Trojan Defense

USC Trojans

Preview 2011 - Defense

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What you need to know: Celebrated coordinator Monte Kiffin is looking for a do-over after his first season on his son's staff was a flop. He'll get it after USC delivered one of its worst defensive performances in school history, yielding an improbable 400 yards and 26 points a game. The good news is that the young Trojans should have a better grip on his complex scheme. While there aren't many obvious mega-stars, save for maybe FS T.J. McDonald, the coach has no shortage of budding playmakers just itching to turn the heads of NFL scouts. DE Nick Perry, LB Devon Kennard, and CB Nickell Robey are only three of last season's handful of underclassmen capable of blooming into All-Pac-12 performers. Above all else, Troy needs to patch up a leaky secondary that gave up 30 touchdown passes, more than any team in the conference and all but five programs in the country.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: T.J. McDonald, 89
Sacks: Wes Horton, Nick Perry, 4
Interceptions: Nickell Robey, 4

Star of the defense: Junior FS T.J. McDonald
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore CB Torin Harris
Unsung star on the rise: Redshirt freshman DT George Uko
Best pro prospect: McDonald
Top three all-star candidates: 1) McDonald, 2) Junior LB Devon Kennard, 3) Junior DE Nick Perry
Strength of the defense: The defensive line, team speed, creating pressure, takeaways
Weakness of the defense: Durability, pass defense, lapses in run defense, red zone D, third down defense

Defensive Line

State of the Unit: Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron is close to having the kind of dominant front four Trojan fans had grown accustomed to in the previous decade. It's not quite there, but you can see the seedlings of greatness beginning to sprout. USC loses a very good player, current Tennessee Titan DT Jurrell Casey, but everyone else is back on campus, giving the program the talent and depth to keep the rotation spinning at ends and tackle.

How good can 6-3, 250-pound junior DE Nick Perry be? About as good as he wants to be. After seeing his numbers drop to 25 tackles, 7.5 stops for loss, and three sacks, he rededicated himself in the offseason, and it showed in the spring. After playing with a gimpy ankle in 2010, he's healthy again and poised for the kind of breakout season that garners national attention. An explosive pass rusher, he possesses the speed to beat tackles around the edge and the strength to bull rush through the inside. He's just physically better than everyone that lines up opposite him.

Flanking Perry at the opposite end will be 6-5, 260-pound junior Wes Horton . More of a strongside guy, he started six games a year ago, making 29 tackles, 5.5 stops for loss, and four sacks. Like Perry, he wasn't at 100% last year, battling back pain throughout the season. The wild card up front is 6-5, 295-pound senior Armond Armstead , a potentially dominant player on the outside or the inside. He has 17 career starts, and made a career-high 43 stops, 6.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks. However, he missed the spring with an unknown medical condition, leaving his future in doubt.

At nose tackle, 6-2, 290-pound senior Christian Tupou is one of the most inspirational and dedicated Trojans on the roster. Back after missing the 2010 season to torn knee ligaments, he was given the program's Courage Award and Co-Lifter of the Year Award. Fiercely competitive, he has 21 career starts and a motor that won't quit. He's currently being backed up by 6-4, 305-pound senior DaJohn Harris, last year's starter. He has an NFL body and three-tech quickness, making 35 tackles, 5.5 stops for loss, and 3.5 sacks. The riser on the inside has been 6-4, 300-pound redshirt freshman George Uko , last year's Scout Team Player of the Year and the projected starter at defensive tackle. Coming off a tremendous spring, he's reshaped his body and is beginning to play with a higher degree of consistency.

Watch Out For … Armstead's health. Shrouded in mystery right now, it remains uncertain whether or not the senior will play this season … or next. His physical well-being is the obvious priority, but the Trojans would love to have him back in the rotation for purely defensive reasons. He's a next-level player, with the skill set to contribute in multiple areas.
Strength: Quickness. Inside and out, the Trojan defensive linemen can pressure opposing blockers with their burst and acceleration to the backfield. They'll be able to collapse the pocket from a number of different angles, getting off the snap and in the quarterback's face in a hurry.
Weakness: Injuries. Much like the offensive line, the D-line has been banged up as well over the past year. Besides Armstead, whose issues have been well-documented, Tupou is coming off knee surgery, and Perry and Horton were hobbled throughout the 2010 campaign.
Outlook: Health aside, the USC defensive line is poised to take a big step forward this season. There's a good blend of talent, young and old, inside and outside, for Orgeron to further develop. Best of all, the trajectory is pointing in the right direction for some of the up-and-comers, like Perry, Horton, and Uko.
Unit Rating: 8


State of the Unit: The Trojans have lost a pair of starting linebackers, Malcolm Smith and Michael Morgan, who were both among the team's top six tacklers in 2010. Both will be missed, but USC does have a pair of all-conference types back in the fold and determined to make sure that the program continues to be among the nation's best developers of linebackers.

The budding star of the trio in the middle is 6-3, 250-pound junior Devon Kennard , who's lived up to the hype in his first two seasons since leaving high school as a can't-miss recruit. The total package of size, quickness, and instincts, he was solid after shifting from end, making 72 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks. He missed the spring, but will be back in the summer, poised to explode on to the radar of NFL scouts.

It's been a quirky career for 6-2, 250-pound senior Chris Galippo, the favorite at weakside. A mega-recruit in 2007, he was slowed by injuries early in his career and hasn't quite broken through. A part-time starter in 2010, he was USC's Special Teams Player of the Year and earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 despite making just 29 tackles. Big and physical, he has the right mindset and vision to excel in run defense. He's backed up by one of the veterans of the unit, 6-0, 220-pound senior Shane Horton. A former transfer from UNLV, he has nice range, starting three games and making 28 tackles and 6.5 stops for loss a year ago.

Coming out of spring, 6-1, 215-pound sophomore Marquis Simmons and 6-1, 195-pound redshirt freshman Dion Bailey were listed as co-starters. Together, the contenders have one tackle between them. Simmons likes to attack off the edge, yet can also drop back into coverage and defend the pass. Similarly explosive, Bailey is a ball-hawk, but is undersized and needs to prove he can hold up in run defense.

Watch Out For … Galippo's health. When he's on and at 100%, the Trojans know they've got a special player at linebacker. However, he always seems to be dinged up, missing the spring with yet another injury. On a unit breaking in newcomers, he needs to be available for all 12 games.
Strength: Pass rushing skills. In Kennard and Galippo, the Trojans have a pair of veterans who possess the timing and strength to fight through blocks and make plays behind the line of scrimmage. Plus, Simmons, Bailey, and redshirt freshman Hayes Pullard are outside guys, with the speed to pin their ears back and explode off the snap.
Weakness: Strongside. It's an area of concern for USC, which is going to be breaking in a very young and inexperienced player at the position. Simmons and Bailey can make plays on raw ability alone, but they lack the reps to avoid getting exposed at times during the year.
Outlook: Although Kennard has star power and potential, the rest of the linebackers earn an incomplete at this stage of the offseason. Galippo is a durability concern at weakside, and the competitors at strongside combined for one tackle in 2010. Like so many areas of this team, the linebackers have plenty of talent, but even more to prove later in the fall.
Unit Rating: 7.5


State of the Unit: The rebuilding is done. The retooling continues in August. At least that's the hope around Troy. Lord knows, the situation can't possibly get any worse than a year ago, when a secondary with four new starters got exposed for 30 touchdown passes and ranked 109th nationally against the pass. Now that four starters return from that maligned group, the only way is up on the unit's final line of defense.

Busting out a year ago was 6-3, 205-pound junior FS T.J. McDonald , who earned a spot on the All-Pac-10 second team in his debut as a starter. Looking as if he was manufactured in some USC lab for elite safeties, he had a team-high 89 tackles and three interceptions. He's the total package at the position, packing a punch and covering like an over-sized corner. On the brink of being Sunday-ready, he's capable of following in father Tim's footsteps and giving the Trojans yet another All-American out of the secondary.

Joining McDonald at strong safety will be 5-11, 185-pound senior Marshall Jones , a career backup who started the final four games of 2010 and made 35 stops. A five-star disappointment, he can still pack a punch and has a good feel for the defense. The veteran of the backup safeties is 6-1, 195-pound junior Jawanza Starling , McDonald's caddy. He started the first nine games last fall, getting in on 37 stops, before suffering a hamstring injury. An outstanding all-around physical specimen, he still needs to polish up his coverage skills.

The one constant at cornerback is 5-8, 165-pound sophomore Nickell Robey , a full-year starter in his first season on campus. He suffered through the usual rookie learning curve, but also evolved on the fly, making 48 tackles and a team-high four interceptions. Extremely feisty, especially for his size, he's a terrific tackler in the open field. The other cornerback spot is open, a tight race between 6-1, 195-pound junior Tony Burnett and 6-1, 185-pound Torin Harris . Harris served as a backup a year, making 13 tackles, but lost some ground in the spring as he recuperated from a shoulder injury. A former walk-on and JUCO transfer, Burnett is also a jumper and sprinter on the track team. Not quite the cover man Harris is, he can deliver the payload, making 26 tackles as a special teamer.

Watch Out For … Robey to be USC's version of Florida State playmaker Greg Reid. Proof that good things often come in small packages, the Trojan sophomore is on the verge of becoming one of the Pac-12's more exciting defensive backs. He's fearless, attacking the ball and any receiver trying to catch a pass in his area of the field.
Strength: Hitters. Okay, there's no Ronnie Lott or Taylor Mays in the group, but the Trojan defensive backs will lead an imprint. The safeties pop like linebackers and the cornerbacks, particularly Robey, do a nice job of wrapping up in the open field and dragging down opponents.
Weakness: Defending the red zone. More than anything else, the Trojans' struggles in pass defense were exacerbated near the goal. In uncharacteristic fashion, the USC defense was strafed for 30 touchdown passes, more than any other Pac-10 team and 115th in the country.
Outlook: Progress is inevitable, but how much? The Trojans need to get better at defending the perimeter of the field, and should make strides with three starters returning. However, with a true sophomore at one corner and an undecided race at the other, there'll still be some rough afternoons and evenings for the USC pass defense this fall.
Unit Rating: 7

Special Teams

State of the Unit: The Trojan special teams are going to be a curious bunch, a group that does a lot of little things well, yet could be leaning heavily on a pair of newcomers. PK Joe Houston and P Jacob Harfman have both exhausted their eligibility, leaving holes at their spots. While an area of concern, to be sure, neither is irreplaceable based on their past performances.

Taking the place of Houston will be true freshman Andre Heidari , one of the nation's top prep placekickers a year ago. A powerful kicker and kickoff specialist, who was on campus in January, he needs to operate with a greater level of consistency.

The job at punter will go to either junior Kyle Negrete or true freshman Kris Albarado. Negrete is a transfer from San Diego, a player with limited upside who appeared to be keeping the position with warm in the spring. Albarado doesn't arrive until the summer, when he's expected to win this job. Another elite prep recruit, he's a boomer, who gets good distance and has outstanding mechanics.

The Trojans have a number of interesting weapons in the return game for a second straight year. On punts, they'll turn to either junior Curtis McNeal or sophomore Nickell Robey . On kickoffs, it can turn to Robey or sophomore Robert Woods . Woods was brilliant in his debut, averaging more than 25 yards, taking one back 97 yards, and earning a spot on the All-Pac-10 first team.

Watch Out For … Albarado to surge past Negrete in August and never look back. Forget the fact that he has no experience at this level. He has enormous upside and has been preparing for years for this opportunity. It'll qualify as an upset if this isn't his first of four years as the starting punter.
Strength: Blocking kicks. One of the unsung aspects of last year's success on special teams, the Trojans redirected seven kicks and punts. An indication of the dedication to this area of the program, John Baxter's kids are outstanding athletes who use their size and athleticism to put pressure on opposing punters and kickers.
Weakness: Uncertainty in the kicking game. Yeah, this might not be an issue two years, or even a year from now. Today, however, USC is a school that's likely to have a rookie at the two most important positions on the unit. There'll be flashes of potential, but hiccups along the way at both punter and placekicker.
Outlook: Properly sizing up the Trojan special teams is going to be tricky this fall. On one hand, they've got Woods returning kicks and all of those long arms to block kicks. On the other, the kickers lack experience and the coverage teams need to plug a few holes. Rest assured, it's an evolving area that'll get better over time.
Unit Rating: 7

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- 2011 USC Defense | 2011 USC Depth Chart
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