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2013 USC Preview – Defense
Posted Jul 2, 2013 2013 Preview - USC Trojan Defense

USC Trojans

Preview 2013 - Defense

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What you need to know: Three games defined the 2012 season for the D, losses to Arizona, Oregon and UCLA, in which the opposition averaged 46 points. Change was unavoidable. Lane Kiffin shook up his staff in the offseason, replacing dad Monte at coordinator with Clancy Pendergast. Pendergast will be a seminal figure at Troy this year, as he attempts to maximize the returning talent, while managing ongoing issues pertaining to depth. The new coach, who knows his way around the Pac-12 from his days at Cal, has already turned the defense on its ear. The Trojans have spent the offseason digesting the intricacies of a 5-2 defense that will be far more aggressive than it was in recent years. The tackles are now ends, the ends are outside linebackers and two-year starting LB Dion Bailey is playing strong safety. Pendergast is methodically tinkering with all aspects of a unit that can no longer afford to underachieve. By design, USC figures to be very strong on the perimeter, encouraging news for slowing down spread attacks. Ends Leonard Williams and George Uko are big and quick, like predatory cats. And outside linebackers Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard, who missed all of 2012 with an injury, are hybrids being asked to pounce from off the edge.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Hayes Pullard, 107
Sacks: Morgan Breslin, 13
Interceptions: Dion Bailey, 4

Star of the defense: Senior OLB Morgan Breslin
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Anthony Brown
Unsung star on the rise: Junior DE George Uko
Best pro prospect: Breslin
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Breslin, 2) Sophomore DE Leonard Williams, 3) Junior LB Hayes Pullard
Strength of the defense: The ends, the linebackers, safety, takeaways, backfield pressure
Weakness of the defense: Nose tackle, cornerback, overall depth, run defense

Defensive Line

Coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s switch to the 52 D means a lot of shifting of personnel and the use of just three traditional defensive linemen. Sophomore DE Leonard Williams, a newcomer in 2012, had a rather auspicious debut in his first season out of Daytona Beach, Fla., earning Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. At 6-5 and 270 pounds, he’s essentially a hybrid for the Trojans, an ideal candidate to move outside after originally playing tackle. Williams is strong enough to hold up at the point of attack, yet possesses the quickness of a strongside end in a 3-4. In a table-setting campaign, the emerging star up front made 64 tackles, 13.5 stops for loss, eight sacks, four deflections and a pair of fumble recoveries.

Flanking Williams will be junior DE George Uko, a returning starter and honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection who also played tackle a year ago. He, too, gets off the snap very quickly, and will track down opposing ball carriers in all directions. While only 6-3 and 275 pounds, he’s tough and physical at the point of attack, with the get-off to be used as a bookend on the outside with Williams when coordinator Clancy Pendergast employs his version of a 3-4. Uko is poised for a monster year after scratching the surface of his potential with 31 tackles, nine stops for loss and five sacks in 2012.

Now that Williams and Uko are on the edge, Troy needs a nose tackle, a position that’ll either be manned by 6-1, 305-pound sophomore Antwaun Woods or 6-3, 285-pound sophomore Cody Temple. Woods started four games as a rookie, finishing with 16 tackles and 4.5 stops for loss. He seems to be a natural fit at a position that requires linemen to quickly get off the snap, while clogging up the A gaps. Temple is a former center who missed most of 2012 to an ankle injury. He’s playing from behind, but made up a significant amount of ground during the spring.

Ends Greg Townsend Jr. and J.R. Tavai will figure prominently in the rotation this season. The 6-2, 265-pound Tavai, a junior, has shown in his first two years that he can play multiple positions. He’s logged three career starts, while notching a career-high 17 tackles and 2.5 stops for loss in 2012. Townsend has been slowed this offseason as he recuperates from knee surgery. The 6-3, 260-pound sophomore came off the bench to make 15 tackles last year.

Watch Out For … Woods to pull away from Temple in the summer. The staff wants Woods to earn the job on the field, which is exactly what he plans on doing when practice reconvenes. He’s in the best shape of his brief college career, displaying the quickness to the backfield that should result in a bunch of drive-stalling stops in the fall.
Strength: Hybrids. All of a sudden, USC houses a nice collection of dual-threats in the trenches. By moving Williams and Uko to defensive end, the Trojans have gotten bigger without sacrificing in the pass rush. The new edge guys are thick and strong enough to support the run, yet both are capable of approaching double-digit sacks in 2013.
Weakness: Stringing out plays. While the Trojans should be nasty between the tackles, they still might be vulnerable on the perimeter against the quicker teams on the schedule. The 2012 squad had a lot of problems against the run, allowing more than four yards a carry to rank a mediocre 69th in the country.
Outlook: New roles and new faces in different places. The D-line has done some deft juggling this offseason, yet the team should benefit once games begin. Williams, Uko and Woods each appears to be a good fit where Pendergast has positioned them, setting the stage for a productive 2013. Williams, in particular, is gushing with the kind of potential that might make him a household name outside of Pac-12 circles.
Unit Rating: 8


A new defensive alignment in 2013 means USC will employ two traditional linebackers and a pair of hybrid ends masquerading as outside linebackers. One of the new standup linebackers in Clancy Pendergast’s system will be senior Morgan Breslin. In an otherwise disappointing campaign for the program, Breslin was a silver lining in just his first year out of Diablo Valley (Calif.) Junior College. Quiet away from the field, but rowdy on it, the 6-2, 250-pounder used a great motor and tremendous strength to collect 62 tackles, 19.5 stops for loss and 13 sacks, most by a Trojan in almost a decade. Like a muted, modern-day Kevin Greene, Breslin plays the game with such a high level of passion and determination that it’s tough to keep him out of the backfield.

At the opposite outside linebacker position, the program is ecstatic to once again have the services of 6-3, 260-pound Devon Kennard, who missed all of 2012 with a torn chest muscle. The former can’t-miss recruit has started games at both linebacker and end, so he should be a very good fit for what Pendergast is trying to do. This is a huge year for Kennard, both in terms of his Trojan legacy and his future in the NFL.

Taking over in the middle is Hayes Pullard, who spent his first two seasons as the team’s starter at weakside. The 6-1, 235-pound honorable mention All-Pac-12 pick from a year ago has the size, strength and feel for the game to be a good fit to move inside for the first time in his career. He routinely operates with good leverage, a solid base and the instincts to thrive against the run in the new attacking D. The 2012 team’s second-leading tackler contributed 107 stops, including eight for minus yards, and a pair of sacks.

Pullard’s old weakside spot will come down to two competitors, 6-2, 235-pound junior Lamar Dawson or 6-0, 215-pound sophomore Anthony Sarao. Both will play, but there’s only one starting spot. Dawson has a big edge in experience, turning nine starts in the middle in 2012 into 74 tackles. However, Sarao will not go away without a fight. He brings a level of intensity and the perpetual energy that the coaching staff loves. Despite starting just one time last fall, Sarao still managed to make 40 stops, four tackles for loss and three sacks.

The coaches are counting on 6-4, 255-pound senior Kevin Greene being a factor off the bench at depth-depleted outside linebacker. He’s had a very quiet career as a reserve defensive end up to this point, collecting just eight career tackles, a pair behind the line of scrimmage. If, however, he can provide occasional blows for Breslin or Kennard, he’ll have earned his scholarship in 2013.

Watch Out For … how well Breslin adapts to his new role as an outside linebacker. Moving the senior was a risky move since he was so wildly successful as a defensive end in 2012. Last year, he was mostly a pass rusher. This year, Breslin has additional assignments, such as stringing out running plays and dropping back into coverage.
Strength: Collapsing the pocket. Now that Breslin and Kennard have been moved back a little off the line, the linebackers boast two outstanding pass rushers who approach the game like defensive ends. Adding in the leadership and experience of Pullard and Dawson gives the Trojans a diverse and athletic collection of defenders from the second level.
Weakness: Beyond the starters. Depth is a problem just about everywhere on this roster, but especially at linebacker. Aside from Sarao, who could wind up starting, USC doesn’t have backups it can count on to seamlessly make plays from off the bench. This is an area where freshmen, both true and redshirt, will have a chance to contribute immediately.
Outlook: It’s a year of transition for the USC linebackers, with imports and exports affecting the unit’s chemistry. The one thing the Trojans do have at the position is talent. Breslin and Pullard are all-league performers, and some mixture of Dawson and Sarao at weakside is going to work. What will the program get from Kennard in his final year? It’s a key question that could help take this group from good to great if No. 42 is able to finally max out his considerable potential.
Unit Rating: 8


The shifting and maneuvering on defense has impacted every unit, including the secondary. Junior Dion Bailey, a fixture at linebacker the last two seasons, is moving to strong safety, a position that better fits his 6-0, 210-pound frame. Actually, the 2011 Defensive Freshman of the Year has always conducted himself like a hard-hitting enforcer, traversing the entire field in order to lower the boom. Instinctive and skilled in the art of open-field tackling, he ranked third on the squad in 2012 with 80 stops, eight of which were for minus yards, and added a team-high four picks.

While Bailey is expected to man strong safety, 6-1, 190-pound junior Josh Shaw and mega-recruit Su’a Cravens were locked in a tight battle during the spring. A former transfer from Florida, Shaw began his Trojans debut at strong safety before winning a cornerback job midway through 2012. He closed out the year with 30 tackles, two stops for loss, two picks and eight passes defended. Cravens was rated as the nation’s No. 1 safety back in February, a well-sized future superstar. His quest for playing time took a hit when he suffered a torn meniscus in April, though he is expected back in August.

The duel at free safety this past spring was between 6-1, 195-pound senior Demetrius Wright and 6-2, 185-pound true freshman Leon McQuay III. While Wright is a terrific all-around athlete entering his fourth year in the program, he has no starts and just 28 tackles on the career resume. The nation’s sixth-rated safety made a smooth enough transition in the spring to get serious consideration for the job right out of the gate. It’s also worth noting that 6-1, 215-pound senior Gerald Bowman was not included on the post-spring depth chart since he was rehabbing a torn calf muscle. The power-punching former JUCO All-American got a taste of action by making 11 tackles and a pick in 2012.

The staff’s biggest concern in the defensive backfield, if not the entire D, is the play of the cornerbacks. No one impressed the coaching staff during the spring, a worry with the season fast approaching. Junior Anthony Brown is closest to a starting gig among the cornerbacks. The 5-9, 180-pounder started the first two games of 2012, finishing the year 18 tackles and a role coming off the bench. He needs to be this season’s poor-man’s Nickell Robey, overcoming a diminutive frame to become a playmaker of the secondary.

Over on the other side, 6-0, 190-pound senior Torin Harris and 6-0, 170-pound sophomore Kevon Seymour are the two primary contenders to be in the lineup. Harris has been in and out of the lineup throughout his career, never able to fully gain traction as a dependable starter. In 2012, he made 30 tackles and broke up six passes, missing the opener with an injury and the bowl game because of academics. Seymour was a coveted recruit from the 2012 class, with a very high ceiling as a pass defender. He laid the ground floor for his career by appearing in eight games and making five tackles as a rookie.

Watch Out For … the staff to think long and hard about moving Shaw back to cornerback. The relocation of the junior almost makes too much sense, considering the state of the secondary. The Trojans are loaded at safety, yet are questionable at cornerback. Shaw has played both positions, but why keep him at safety once Bailey, Bowman and Cravens are back and healthy?
Strength: Safety. The arrival of Bailey and the successful recruitment of Cravens and McQuay have put USC in a very favorable position at safety. How favorable? Pending the decision about Shaw’s ultimate location, the Trojans could go three-deep with talented former coveted recruits. It’s almost an embarrassment of riches that will allow the coaches to maneuver their DBs like pieces on a chess board.
Weakness: A lockdown corner. As prolific as USC has been at producing next-level safeties over the years, it's been equally inept at cornerback. Who was the last great NFL corner Troy produced? That guy is not going to come from the current roster, at least until the kids, like rookie Chris Hawkins, have time to develop. The program has legitimate concerns about the position, and not a lot of time left to address them.
Outlook: How quickly can the Trojans regroup from the losses of three starters, two of whom were named Second Team All-Pac-12? There’s a lot of shuffling going on, and a two-deep that figures to look very different in the opener with Hawaii than it did at the end of spring. There’s undeniable secondary talent blended with question marks that could get exposed against Pac-12 opponents.
Unit Rating: 7

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

- 2013 USC Preview | 2013 USC Offense
- 2013 USC Defense | 2013 USC Depth Chart