2007 USC Preview - Defense

Posted Jul 24, 2007

Preview 2007 USC Trojan Defense

USC Trojans

Preview 2007
- Defense

- 2007 USC Preview | 2007 USC Offense Preview
2007 USC Depth Chart | 2006 CFN USC Preview 

What you need to know: The Trojan offense is good.  The Trojan defense is scary good.  Backed by a Who’s Who of future first-day NFL Draft choices, USC is ready to unleash the nastiest and stingiest unit of the Pete Carroll era.  Led by Sedrick Ellis at the nose, Keith Rivers at middle linebacker, and Terrell Thomas at cornerback, the Trojans boast seven players capable of making a run at All-America honors in 2007.  Yeah, a few more sacks and takeaways would be nice, but this is as close to a flawless unit that there is in the country.  From front to back, they’re aggressive, experienced and fast enough to create a swarming effect on the ball carrier.  Although the Trojans will give up yards to teams playing from behind, scoring meaningful points on them in the first three quarters is going to be a year-long nightmare.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Keith Rivers, 85
Sacks: Brian Cushing, Sedrick Ellis, 4.5
Interceptions: Taylor Mays, 3

Star of the defense: Senior DT Sedrick Ellis
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior DE Kyle Moore
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore FS Taylor Mays
Best pro prospect: Ellis
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Ellis 2) Senior LB Keith Rivers 3) CB Terrell Thomas
Strength of the defense: The back seven, rush defense, depth
Weakness of the defense: Sacks

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: When tackle Sedrick Ellis and end Lawrence Jackson opted to forego the NFL Draft and return for their senior seasons, USC instantly maintained its status as one of the elite defensive lines in the nation.  Ellis is the premier interior lineman in the Pac-10, an explosive and disruptive force that plays with great leverage and has made Trojan fans forget Mike Patterson.  He had 34 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last year, which don’t do justice to his importance to the defense.  While Jackson is coming off a woefully disappointing season that took him nine games to register a sack, he has the size and speed off the edge to make 2006 a distant memory.  With a fat signing bonus at stake, the 6-5, 265-pounder now has the motivation to make a salary run with a rebound season in 2007.

Filling out the front four will be a couple of juniors, tackle Fili Moala and end Kyle Moore. More of a space-eater at 6-4 and 300 pounds, Moala doesn’t get penetration like Ellis, but is quickly becoming one of the better run defenders in the Pac-10.  He started ten games in 2006, making 20 tackles and seven tackles for loss, setting the stage for a strong second half to his Trojan career.  At 6-6 and 260 pounds, Moore has the physical gifts to dominate at this level, but has yet to even approach his enormous potential.  He saw limited action in the 3-4 last season, but should erupt this year, particularly with Jackson garnering so much attention at the opposite end.    

Projected Top Reserves: Sophomore Averell Spicer will back up Ellis this season, but by 2008, could be the next big thing in a Trojan nose tackle.  A big-time recruit from 2005, he’s beefed up to 6-2 and 295 pounds, but hasn’t lost the quick feet and good moves that made him a highly-coveted defensive end in high school. 

Now that senior Chris Barrett has been declared academically ineligible, sophomore Alex Parsons is being asked to back up Moala at tackle.  Undersized at 6-4 and 260 pounds, he’s a meat-and-potatoes battler that earned his first letter in 2006 on special teams and should get more reps on defense this year. 

USC’s most dependable and experienced second team end is Alex Morrow, a fifth-year senior that’s underachieved since arriving as a can’t-miss recruit, but still brings value to the unit.  At 6-6 and 270 pounds, he’s the defense’s biggest end, and a viable option for the staff, especially on obvious running plays.     

Watch Out For… incoming freshman Everson Griffen.  While it’s unlikely Griffen can beat out Moore for a starting job, he clearly has the talent to win a spot on the second team.  At 6-4 and 265 pounds, the nation’s best prep end has the speed off the edge to be a smash hit early in his career.                    
Strength: Run defense.  With three starters back, expect a repeat of last season, when the Trojans finished No. 9 nationally against the run, and allowed just three rushing touchdowns over the final ten games of 2006.           
Weakness: Getting to the quarterback.  For all the talent housed in Troy, shouldn’t USC bag a few more sacks, especially from the ends?  It’s up to Jackson to rebound from last year, and help open things up for Moore and the rest of the line.                      
Outlook: Arguably the nation’s toughest defensive line will set the tone for the entire defense, winning the battle for the line of scrimmage and clamping down on every opponent intent on establishing a ground game. Sedrick Ellis and Lawrence Jackson are All-America caliber playmakers to work around, while Fili Moala is an unsung rock on the inside who'll swallow everything up.                   
Rating: 9.5


Projected Starters: If USC doesn’t have the nation’s best linebacking corps, it has one of the top three.  Led by senior Keith Rivers on the weakside, all three starters have All-America potential and NFL futures.  Rivers is arguably the country’s top outside linebacker, a 6-3 and 230-pounder that pursues well in all directions, including on blitzes, and is a standout in pass defense.  Last year’s team leader in tackles with 85 would have been a high draft choice in 2008 had he foregone his final year of eligibility. 

On the inside is junior Rey Maualuga, a 6-3, 250-pound freight train that intimidates with his intensity and bone-jarring hits.  Entering his second season as the starter, he plays with reckless abandon and has impeccable instincts for the position.  Few college defenders provide the pop he does, finishing second on the team with 78 tackles.

Replacing Dallas Sartz on the strongside will be junior Brian Cushing, who started in 2006 as a stand-up defensive end in the old 3-4 defense.  The defensive MVP of January’s Rose Bowl led the Trojans in 2006 with 13.5 tackles for loss, showing off a tenacity and strength at the point of contact that make him a natural to return to his original spot on the defense.           

Projected Top Reserves: At weakside, Rivers’ understudy will again be junior Kaluka Maiava, a two-time letterman that had 34 tackles a year ago.  While he doesn’t look the part at 6-0 and 225 pounds, he displays a knack for being around the ball and is one of USC’s most accomplished special teams players. 

In the middle is fifth-year senior Thomas Williams, a versatile veteran of 36 games that can play strongside, and even filled in at fullback in 2006.  A punishing hitter at 6-3 and 240 pounds, he’s also one of the emotional and vocal leaders of the defense. 

Former walk-on Clay Matthews has settled in nicely as Cushing’s backup at strongside, making 15 tackles and sharing Special Teams Player of the Year honors with Maiava last year.  Now a junior, he’s got surprising speed and the confidence of the coaching staff to be more than just a spot player.    

Watch Out For… this unit to spur a return to the days when USC perennially ranked among the nation’s best defenses in takeaways.  The Trojans created a mere 22 turnovers in 2006, well below their standards, but with Rivers, Maualuga and Cushing lighting up opponents, look for that total to skyrocket this fall.
Strength: Range.  Whether they’re blitzing or dropping back into coverage, no one will be able to escape this highly instinctive, aggressive and disruptive trio of linebackers.
Weakness: Overconfidence.  It’s an absolute reach, but the only obstacle facing the Trojan linebackers will be staying focused on the task at hand, and not allowing the riches of the NFL or the calls from agents to become distractions.
Outlook: Over the years, a ton of great linebackers have done their apprenticeship at USC, but this group has a chance to be the best ever.  Three NFL-ready players at their respective positions, Keith Rivers, Rey Maualuga, and Brian Cushing, will control game after game. The backup trio of Kaluka Maiava, Thomas Williams and Clay Matthews could start at about 90 other places.
Rating: 10

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: The Trojans biggest problem in the secondary?  Keeping six experienced and qualified players happy with only four starting jobs available.  Every Pac-10 school should have such a problem.  All four starters return, including sophomore free safety Taylor Mays, a budding superstar after just one season on campus.  Forced into action in 2006, he responded with 62 tackles and a team-high three picks, en route to Freshman All-American honors.  At 6-4 and 225 pounds, Mays hits like a linebacker, yet is as fast as any Trojan, a rare blend that’s making the next-level scouts drool. 

At strong safety is junior Kevin Ellison, who made 64 tackles, six tackles for loss and five pass breakups in his first season as a starter.  A quick study that’s rarely out of position, he’s a 220-pound thumper and a fine open-field tackler. 

Manning the corners for a second straight year will be senior Terrell Thomas and junior Cary Harris.  Thomas is the Trojans’ best cover man, and an All-Pac-10 second teamer who led the defense with 12 broken up passes.  Tall and very quick on his breaks, he showed no ill effects last year from an ACL tear that prematurely ended his 2005 season. 

Harris is a wiry 6-1 and 180-pound defender that’s coming along nicely, making 48 tackles and breaking up three passes in his first year as a starter in 2006.  Clocked in the 4.3 range, he has tremendous speed, but needs to make more big plays this year when opposing quarterbacks opt to avoid Thomas and pick on him.                  

Projected Top Reserves: If Mays is No. 1 at free safety, junior Josh Pinkard is No. 1A.  A starter since the mid-point of 2005, and arguably USC’s best defensive back heading into last year, he tore knee ligaments in the opener, missing the entire season.  Before the injury, he was one of the fastest Trojans in a sturdy, 6-1 and 215-pound package.  If Pinkard, who can also play cornerback, regains the speed and flexibility he had before the injury, it’ll give the Trojans a scary amount of talent at safety. 

Behind Ellison at strong safety is junior Mozique McCurtis, a former junior college transfer who was used as a cornerback and nickel back at times last season.  At 6-1 and 225 pounds, he’s a versatile big hitter that can also contribute when the ball is in the air.

The primary depth at cornerback will come from junior Kevin Thomas and sophomore Shareece Wright.  Thomas has the size, speed and experience to be a starter, but has been dogged by a variety of injuries throughout his career.  He had ankle surgery following the season, missing the spring to recover. 

Wright will spend the upcoming season preparing as if he’ll be a starter in 2008.  He got his feet wet last season, showing good quickness and leaping ability making 15 tackles, and should get even more playing time during the upcoming season.      

Watch Out For… Mays.  A little over a year removed from high school, he’s on the tarmac and preparing for a serious career lift-off.  With an unheard-of combination of size and speed, he’s the next coming of current Washington Redskin Pro Bowler Sean Taylor.
Strength: The safeties.  Assuming Pinkard can return intact from last September’s knee injury, the Trojans will boast three next level safeties capable of starting and contending for First Team All-Pac-10 honors.
Weakness: Durability.  The depth in the secondary is fantastic, but only if everyone stays healthy.  Within just the past 12 months, Ellison, Harris, Thomas, Pinkard, and free safety Will Harris have undergone some type of surgery to repair an injury.
Outlook: Last season’s Pac-10-best pass defense will be even stingier this season, adding more picks and fumble recoveries to an already impressive stat sheet. This is an NFL caliber secondary with several players certain to make a whole bunch of money at the next level.
: 9.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: The tragic death of Mario Danelo in January has unexpectedly catapulted junior David Buehler into the role of USC’s primary placekicker and kickoff man.  A terrific all-around athlete, he has a huge leg, but zero track record at consistently making kicks the way Danelo did for two seasons.  In his only attempt of 2006, Buehler nailed a 49-yarder against Cal, the longest by a Trojan in eight years.

Former walk-on and junior college transfer Greg Woidneck is back to handle the punting chores.  He was awful in his first season with the program, averaging a Pac-10-worst 38.2 yards a punt, and leaving plenty of room for improvement this fall.

Exciting sophomore C.J. Gable is back to handle kickoff returns after finishing second in the Pac-10 and 15th nationally with an average of 27 yards a return.  Also returning to field punts is senior Desmond Reed, but a meager average of 5.4 yards in 2006 leaves his job open when the team reconvenes this summer.                  

Watch Out For… Buehler to flatten some unsuspecting kick returner this fall.  Not your typical kicker at 6-2 and 225 pounds, he also worked out last season at fullback and safety, and will be itching to pummel some 180-pounder with an eye on the end zone.
Strength: Gable.  He showed flashes as a true freshman of being a bona fide weapon with big play potential as the Trojans’ primary kickoff returner.
Weakness: The kickers.  The gap between the ultra-steady Danelo and Buehler will prove to be wide, and Woidneck showed very little in 2006 to get excited about.
Outlook: The special teams unit, particularly the two kickers, is the weakest link in USC’s armor.  Will it cost the Trojans a game in 2007?  By building big cushions, Pete Carroll hopes not to test that question during the season.
Rating: 6.5


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