2012 USC Preview – Defense
USC LB Dion Bailey
USC LB Dion Bailey
Posted Jul 6, 2012

CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - USC Trojan Defense

USC Trojans

Preview 2012 - Defense

- 2012 USC Preview | 2012 USC Offense
- 2012 USC Defense | 2012 USC Depth Chart

What you need to know: For good reason, the offense is making a lot of offseason headlines and watch lists. The D has a chance to be pretty special, too. The Trojans have decent depth, but a terrific first line of defenders, especially along the back seven. The trio of sophomore linebackers Dion Bailey, Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson is oppressive, covering the field with the range of safeties. Bailey was All-Pac-12 in 2011, while Pullard and Dawson have the skill set to join him in coming years. Although the defensive backfield lacked consistency—and takeaways—last fall, it's far too talented to underachieve for a second straight year. Lockdown corner Nickell Robey and FS T.J. McDonald are returning all-stars, with All-American potential. Strong safety is a battle between Jawanza Starling, Demetrius Wright and JUCO star Gerald Bowman when he arrives. The other cornerback position will come down to Isiah Wiley, Torin Harris or Brian Baucham. All eyes will be on the defensive line, the same one that lost three key players. On the outside, the time has arrived for ends Devon Kennard and Wes Horton to finally fulfill all of their potential. The Trojans need the seniors to deliver as steady pass rushers. The defense could be especially vulnerable on the inside, where underclassmen George Uko and J.R. Tavai don't yet have the experience to match their considerable responsibility.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Hayes Pullard, Dion Bailey, 81
Sacks: Wes Horton, Hayes Pullard, 4
Interceptions: T.J. McDonald, 3

Star of the defense: Senior FS T.J. McDonald
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE Devon Kennard
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DT George Uko
Best pro prospect: McDonald
Top three all-star candidates: 1) McDonald, 2) Junior CB Nickell Robey, 3) Sophomore LB Dion Bailey
Strength of the defense: The ends, the linebackers, the secondary, run defense, team speed
Weakness of the defense: Nose tackle, front seven depth, takeaways, third-down stops, red-zone stops

Defensive Line

Three starters need to be replaced along the D-line, including First Team All-Pac-12 DE Nick Perry. The Trojans plan to use a tag-team approach to its situation on the outside. This is going to be a pivotal year for a pair of seniors, 6-3, 260-pound Devon Kennard and 6-5, 260-pound Wes Horton, who started six games apiece in 2011. Kennard, a former blue-chip signee, will have a lot to prove in his final season with the program. After also spending time at linebacker in the past, the hope is that he can flourish now that he has one set position with which to focus upon. Although he was never quite right a year ago, making just 29 tackles, four stops for loss and two stops, the program feels he has the experience and athleticism to blow up much the way Perry did a year ago.

Horton is a much bigger player than Kennard, and as such will be counted on to provide more support against the run. The veteran of 22 career starts made his first All-Pac-12 Team a year ago, registering 22 tackles, 4.5 stops for loss and four sacks. Stronger than he is quick around the edge, he's capable of bull rushing opposing tackles back into the lap of the quarterback. Both Kennard and Horton are looking at this final year of eligibility as a chance to improve their draft grade with pro scouts.

The Trojans have a few more concerns on the inside, an area vacated by the graduations of Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris. Everyone is excited about the potential of 6-3, 285-pound sophomore George Uko, an ideal three-technique tackle in this system. He's a very quick man, with the get-off and burst needed to shoot the gaps and disrupt plays in the backfield. He has the luxury of a couple of starts from a year ago, in which he chipped in 18 tackles and 1.5 stops for loss. In Uko, USC feels as if it has an emerging star on the inside now that he'll have a feature role.

Lining up next to Uko will be USC's new nose tackle, sophomore J.R. Tavai. He appeared in seven games as a backup in his debut of high school, making four tackles off the bench. While only 6-2 and 270 pounds, the second-year Trojan excels with his quickness and non-stop motor. While he might struggle in run defense, especially against bigger blockers, he'll attempt to make up for it with disruption behind the line.

Tavai could get pushed at the nose by 6-1, 315-pound redshirt freshman Antwaun Woods, who will bring an entirely different element to the D-line. He's more of a classic space-eater, with the upper body strength to occupy more than one blocker. Even if Woods remains on the B team, he figures to have a prominent role in his first year as a short-yardage run-stuffer.

Watch Out For … The rise of Uko. What do you get when you combine an agile 285-pounder with D-line guru Ed Orgeron? A breakout year. The sophomore showed flashes of enormous potential a year ago, but now that he's the program's best interior lineman, he's poised to morph into a weekly nuisance for opposing guards and centers.
Strength: The ends. Yeah, it would have been great to have Perry back for one more year, but fret not, Trojans fans. This shakes out as a perfect opportunity for Kennard and Horton to make the most of the chance to be full-timers. The seniors have plenty of talent and experience at USC. And now they have gobs of motivation as NFL scouts look on very closely until the postseason ends.
Weakness: Nose tackle. Depth is a broader issue, a theme that'll continue to be heard throughout the year at a number of positions. More specifically, though, the Trojans are a little concerned about their situation at the nose. Tavai is undersized and better suited to be at defensive tackle. Plus, both he and Woods have virtually no experience between them.
Outlook: Kennard, Horton and Uko are all poised for the best seasons of their college careers, which should give hope to a Trojans D-line in transition. However, there is also genuine cause for concern. Not only is USC going to be a little more vulnerable up the gut than it was in 2011, but the unit is extremely green beyond the two starting ends. The competition for reps promises to be fierce in the summer.
Unit Rating: 8


The staff is justifiably excited about its situation at linebacker, returning a pair of all-stars and a budding star … all of whom played as freshmen in 2011. Sophomore Dion Bailey made a seamless transition from safety to strongside linebacker a year ago, earning Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. While just 6-0 and 215 pounds, he roamed the field with reckless abandon to make 81 tackles, two picks and a couple of sacks. He's a ferocious hitter, with the outstanding range and sure tackling skills to excel in space.

The Trojans will be dipping into the secondary once again to fill its linebacker depth chart, moving senior Tony Burnett from cornerback to the strongside behind Bailey. The former walk-on and JUCO transfer is also a jumper and sprinter on the track team, showcasing excellent all-around athletic ability. He's earned a letter in each of the last two seasons, making 26 tackles in 2010 and 25 more a year ago.

Sophomore Hayes Pullard was the other half of Troy's freshman dynamic duo at linebacker in 2011. Flanked on the opposite side as Bailey at weakside, the 6-1, 230-pounder delivered 81 tackles, 6.5 stops for loss, four sacks and a couple of forced fumbles. In his first year, he proved to be very quick to the ball, instinctive and always playing with drive and determination. The way Pullard goes from sideline-to-sideline, he's liable to lead the Trojans in tackles once again this year.

In the middle, sophomore Lamar Dawson who is about to go from part-time as a rookie to a possible three-year starter for the program. He started the final four games last year, finishing with 25 tackles and a pair behind the line. The 6-2, 235-pounder has the ideal size, smarts and intensity to excel on the inside for this defense, reading and reacting quickly before zeroing in on the man with the ball.

Four-star recruit Scott Starr has already moved into the backup role behind Dawson in the middle, which is both impressive and a little concerning. At 6-3 and 220 pounds, he has the frame to pack on more muscle, which is what he plans to do in the coming months. Barring any changes, Starr figures to earn his first letter, avoiding a redshirt year.

Watch Out For … Dawson to narrow the gap on his teammates. Bailey and Pullard made most of the headlines at the position a year ago, but Dawson now has his chance to shine in a full-time role … and beef up his notoriety. He's every bit as talented as those around him, which is going to show up on film and in the end of year number.
Strength: Closing speed. The Trojans are very quick, very aggressive and versatile enough to support the defense in myriad different ways. Bailey and Pullard on the outside, in particular, possess the speed and change-of-direction to attack the backfield like guided missiles, cover a back or make a picture-perfect tackle in the open field.
Weakness: Beyond the starters. The three sophomores occupying the starting lineup are fantastic defenders who are only going to improve with more snaps. However, after the first team, the Trojans are staring at the possibility of having a converted cornerback, a true freshman and a redshirt freshman on the second unit.
Outlook: Monte Kiffin has constructed this unit with Oregon in mind. The coordinator wants to flood the field with the kinds of athletes who can help neutralize the speed and explosiveness of some of the game's more potent spread attacks. So far, so good. Bailey, Pullard and Dawson are going to grow up together, meshing into a cohesive group that racks up the stops on defense. Bailey, in particular, will again be fun to watch as he flies all over the field in order to leave his mark.
Unit Rating: 8.5


Everyone is back from last year's secondary, creating the kind of competitive environment that the coaching staff absolutely loves. Leading the charge at safety will be senior T.J. McDonald. Obviously, Matt Barkley's career path made a bigger splash, but McDonald's decision to return to USC was a pretty big deal for the defense as well. Following in the footsteps of father Tim, the younger Trojan has also earned All-America recognition for his play in the secondary. He's a hard-hitting free safety, with the instincts and crisp fundamentals to support both the pass defense and the run D. The 6-3, 205-pounder has the wingspan, range and hips to perform like a corner when the ball is in the air, picking off three passes in each of the last two seasons. However, he's most valuable when unleashing the kind of vicious hits that dispatch a message to the other team's sideline.

The situation at strong safety, on the other hand, isn't close to being decided. The staff is going to require more time before anointing a starter. Senior Jawanza Starling has the clear edge in experience, having started in each of the last two seasons. However, he's coming off a pedestrian junior year in which he made just 48 tackles, 3.5 behind the line. The punishing hitter will hit like a linebacker, but needs to become a little more disciplined in coverage.

Challenging Wright will be 6-1, 195-pound junior Demetrius Wright, a reserve in each of his first two seasons. He had 13 tackles last season, making occasional appearances on defense and special teams. Buoyed by his athletic ability and improving cover skills, he's within striking distance of a starting job.

The cornerback equivalent to McDonald at cornerback is junior Nickell Robey, a First Team All-Pac-12 selection in 2011. While not very big at just 5-8 and 165 pounds, he overcomes with the help of great speed, soft hips and outstanding overall cover skills. He plays with a little honey badger in him, jamming opponents at the line of scrimmage, and scrapping with receivers who can be as much as four inches and 40 pounds bigger. Unafraid to support the run, he finished fourth on the team with 63 tackles, adding 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two picks and a team-high nine passes defended.

The other starting corner will come out of 6-0, 180-pound senior Isiah Wiley, 5-11, 170-pound Brian Baucham and 6-0, 180-pound junior Torin Harris, who were locked in a dead heat when spring ended. Wiley started the final six games of 2011, his first as a transfer from Arizona Western Junior College, making 39 tackles and breaking up four passes. He generally improved down the stretch, giving him a very slight edge heading into the summer.

Baucham was one of the biggest surprises of spring drills, impressing the coaching staff with his playmaking ability. He sat out last season to concentrate on academics, last earning a letter as a backup in 2010.

Harris was the starter for the first four games of 2011 before a shoulder injury put him on the shelf for the rest of 2011. At the time, he'd made 17 tackles and broke up a pair of passes. The shoulder problems are in danger of becoming a trend, and when he was in the lineup last September, the Trojans yielded six touchdown passes while picking off just one.

Watch Out For … the impact of coveted JUCO recruit Gerald Bowman. He's physical. He's fast. And he's exactly what the Trojans want roaming the secondary from strong safety. The 6-1, 210-pounder from Pierce (Calif.) Community College harbors all of the closing speed and natural instincts of some cornerbacks, which is why so many programs wanted his signature at the end of last year. Bowman can intimidate opposing receivers and tight ends, much the way USC safeties have done for the past two generations. In Year 1 in Los Angeles, though, he may need to be a little patient unless he can unseat Starling and Wright.
Strength: Depth. Unlike so many areas of the roster, the Trojans are going to be talented and experienced in the secondary. The school has a star each at cornerback and safety to go along with a slew of backups who are no stranger to the field. Nine defensive backs have lettered at some point in their career, eight doing it at least two times.
Weakness: Picks. Where are the big plays that should be built in with a veteran secondary? USC was thrown on 457 times in 2011, yet intercepted just nine of those throws. The offense is dynamic, but it'll become otherworldly if the D can do a better job of getting its hands on the ball, and taking it back the other way.
Outlook: The Trojans have talent, as much as most defensive backfields in the country. However, it's time for this group to begin producing on a more consistent basis. That means substantially more interceptions, and fewer lapses, such as the ones it suffered through in 2011 against Arizona State, Arizona and Stanford. With McDonald and Robey as the tone-setters, it's hard to imagine too many opponents solving the USC pass defense this fall.
Unit Rating: 8

Special Teams

A year after serving as a major asset to the rest of the team, the special teams unit loses just a single player, its snapper. Sophomore Andre Heidariwent from top recruit to one of the country's top placekickers in his debut out of high school. The Freshman All-American and First Team All-Pac-12 pick connected on 15-of-17 field goal attempts, becoming the first Trojan since 1990 to hit from 50 yards out. He has a very strong leg, and proved accurate from being 40 yards.

The punting job will be up for grabs in the summer. Senior Kyle Negrete, a former transfer from San Diego, held the position in 2011, averaging 40.1 yards an attempt. While not a boomer, the walk-on excels at directional kicks, dropping almost half of his punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line; none of which were touchbacks.

However, redshirt freshman Kris Albaradohas the pedigree, and mounted a serious challenge in the spring. The nation's fifth-ranked punter of 2011 has more potential than his competition, but obviously is lagging behind in the area of experience.

The Trojans are flush with quality athletes to plug into the return game. Junior Robert Woods, senior Curtis McNeal and sophomore Marqise Leewill all be in contention on kickoffs. Woods and junior Nickell Robeyare Lane Kiffin's primary options on punts. All have the burst to put up six points in a hurry.

Watch Out For … Troy to employ a punter-by-committee. Albarado has the bigger leg. Negrete is highly skilled at angling kicks on a short field. The coaching staff will give serious consideration this summer to using both players each weekend, depending on the situation and the spot on the field.
Strength: Blocking kicks. One of the underrated aspects of last year's success on special teams, the Trojans redirected seven kicks and punts … for a second straight year. An indication of the dedication to this area of the program, assistant John Baxter's kids are terrific, well-coached athletes who use their size and athleticism to put pressure on opposing punters and kickers.
Weakness: Covering kicks. The Trojans did a poor job of covering kicks in 2011, ranking 102nd nationally, while allowing a pair to be taken back for touchdowns. Baxter has got to find a way to plug the leaks in his unit, or else it's going to place undue pressure on the USC defense.
Outlook: USC began last season with a slew of question marks, but ended it with far more answers. The program is in good shape with its specialists, Heidari and either Negrete or Albarado, and harbors the athletes in the return game to take more than one back in the fall. Plus, the ability to block punts and kicks is an added, and overlooked, bonus. The weakest link is the coverage teams, which sprung a few too many leaks in 2011.
Unit Rating: 8.5

- 2012 USC Preview | 2012 USC Offense
- 2012 USC Defense | 2012 USC Depth Chart