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2008 USC Preview - Defense
USC LB Brian Cushing
USC LB Brian Cushing
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted May 16, 2008


CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - USC Trojan Defense

USC Trojans

Preview 2008
- Defense

- 2008 CFN USC Preview | 2008 USC Offense
- 2008 USC Defense | 2008 USC Depth Chart
- 2007 USC Preview | 2006 CFN USC Preview 

What you need to know: When linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing decided to forego the NFL Draft for one more year, it ensured that the Trojans would have one of the nastiest back sevens in the country.  Not only are the two seniors All-America-caliber, but the secondary is sensational. Safeties Kevin Ellison and Taylor Mays are among six players with starting experience.  Even without current pros Sedrick Ellis and Lawrence Jackson, the defensive line will be just fine. On the outside, speedy Everson Griffen is good enough to make folks forget about Jackson. On the inside, senior Fili Moala is about to shed his anonymity while making a strong push for All-American honors and a spot in the first round of next year’s NFL Draft.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Rey Maualuga, 79
Sacks: Everson Griffen, 5.5
Interceptions: Kevin Ellison, Kyle Moore, 2

Star of the defense: Senior LB Rey Maualuga
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior NT Averell Spicer
Unsung star on the rise: Senior DT Fili Moala
Best pro prospect: Maualuga
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Maualuga 2) Senior LB Brian Cushing 3) Moala
Strength of the defense: The back seven, run defense, team speed
Weakness of the defense: Nose tackle, picking off passes

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Sedrick Ellis and Lawrence Jackson are now in the NFL, but outstanding recruiting has insured that the cupboard is far from bare at defensive line.  The next star of the unit on the inside is Fili Moala, an under-the-radar senior, who’s very popular among NFL scouts. At 6-5 and 295 pounds, he’s explosive off the snap, uses his hands well, and often requires double teams to keep him out of the backfield.  He came up 32 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks, but the numbers don’t accurately portray his importance to the run defense.

The front-runner by the slimmest of margins at nose tackle is junior Averell Spicer, a former bombshell recruit from 2005, who’s ready to step into the spotlight. An Ellis disciple for the past two years, he’s a run stopper who can also make penetration and get to the quarterback. At 6-2 and 290 pounds, Spicer plays with the leverage that makes it tough to get him off his block.

Now that Jackson has graduated, senior Kyle Moore is the cagey veteran of the defensive ends.  At 6-6 and 275 pounds, he’s a match up problem for opposing tackles, combining good speed with the power to bull rush his way to the quarterback. In the first significant action of his career, Moore collected 35 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, and five batted balls at the line of scrimmage.

Sophomore Everson Griffen wasted no time showing the nation why he was one of the most heralded defensive recruits of the country, making 21 tackles and 5.5 sacks in his first season out of high school. At a powerful 6-3 and 265 pounds, he literally has tailback speed around the edge, a rare combination that’ll vex opposing tackles for the next three years. It’s just a matter of time before Griffen’s All-American skill set lands him a spot on All-American teams. 

Projected Top Reserves: Going toe-to-toe with Spicer at nose tackle is sophomore Christian Tupou, who’s coming off a monster effort during spring practice. While only 6-2 and 275 pounds, the reigning Scout Team Player of the Year uses a great motor and explosive first step to overcome a lack of ideal size. Whether or not Tupou passes Spicer, he’s clearly earned a significant role in the Trojan rotation.

A former walk-on and career backup, senior Clay Matthews played in the spring as if doesn’t plan on just stepping aside for Griffen to win one of the end jobs. A natural at the “elephant” position that Brian Cushing filled a couple of years ago, he’s able to just pin his ears back and use his speed to rush the passer. The 6-4, 240-pound Matthews had 15 tackles and three tackles for loss a year ago, and if needed could move to strongside linebacker.

Watch Out For… the Trojans to not skip a beat, despite being without Ellis and Jackson.  Griffen will wind up being more consistent than the sporadic Jackson, and Ellis’ graduation opens the door for Moala, Spicer, and Tupou to become disruptive forces.
Strength: Run defense. The Trojans are so quick and strong up front, opposing backs are rarely able to get to the second level. Of course, not that things get any easier there. Moala is going to make himself plenty of money this fall, and Griffen and Moore are big enough on the outside to be valuable assets in run support.
Weakness
: Pressuring the quarterback on a consistent basis. USC’s top two sackers are out of eligibility, putting the pressure on someone other than Griffen to make the quarterback shuffle his feet. Moore makes the most sense, but he had just two sacks a year ago as an 11-game starter.
Outlook: Ellis and Jackson were two of the first 28 picks in April’s draft, yet the Trojans are going to be okay at the defensive line. Reason No. 32 why USC is a perennial contender for a national championship. Moala and Griffen are the new headliners of a front wall that’ll rely on a deeper group of players this fall.
Rating: 9

Linebackers

Projected Starters: Seniors Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing held off on the NFL for one more year, once again giving the Trojans one of the most imposing sets of linebackers in the country.  At 6-3 and 250 pounds, Maualuga is a human wrecking ball at middle linebacker, coming off his second straight First Team All-Pac-10 season. He had a career-high 79 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and six sacks, but numbers tell only part of the story.  Maualuga is an intimidator, whose bone-jarring hits make receivers think twice about crossing the middle and backs step out of bounds to avoid being punished. The problem? He’s not a blazer and he isn’t going to time well in Indianapolis.

From strongside, Cushing is one of those freakish athletes with outstanding upper body strength and the 4.5 speed to make plays all over the field.  A natural pass rusher at 6-4 and 240 pounds, he’s as scary on the blitz as he is defending the run. He had nagging injuries throughout 2007, so don’t put much stock in his modest numbers, 25 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and a sack.

The new starter at weakside has yet to be determined.  The competition between junior Luthur Brown and senior Kaluka Maiava heated up in the spring and will continue into the summer.  At 6-3 and 230 pounds, Brown has terrific size and the sideline-to-sideline speed to be a major factor in run defense and pass defense.  He played well in his first real action as a Trojan, making 25 tackles and a bunch of plays of special teams.

Maiava is a proven veteran coming off his best season, 44 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and a couple of sacks.  Don’t get bogged down by his modest 6-0 and 225-pound frame.  Maiava plays much bigger on defense and special teams, and has the instincts and experience to consistently be around the ball.

Projected Top Reserves: Regardless of who wins the job at weakside, both Brown and Maiava are going to start games and get plenty of reps this fall.  They’re very different defenders, each offering something a little different to the defense.

You probably don’t know the name Chris Galippo, but you’re going to by 2009.  He’s the heir apparent to Maualuga in the middle, a 6-2, 235-pound redshirt freshman with an enormous upside.  The nation’s top-rated linebacker of 2007, Galippo performs like he was born to play the position, racking up nine tackles and three sacks in the spring game. He was scheduled to be in the rotation in 2007, but suffered a herniated disk in his back and was sidelined after three games.     

Watch Out For… Cushing to pass Maualuga on some NFL teams’ draft boards. He has a chance to play his way deep into the first round, which has been the driving force in a terrific offseason.  Cushing is a beast, something he plans to drive home after suffering through a down year.
Strength: Run defense. Led by Maualuga and Cushing, this group has a nose for the football and a gift for fighting through blockers to get to the ball carrier. With the front seven that USC will be rolling out this year, the only tackles the safeties and corners make will be on completed passes. Weakness: Proven backups in the middle and at strongside. Galippo and sophomore Michael Morgan have bright futures at USC, but neither has done much away from the practice field for the Trojans. The only way the Trojans won’t have one of the two or three best linebacker units in America is if the depth has to be tested early.
Outlook: Maualuga and Cushing are a pair of NFL-ready linebackers still hanging around the Pac 10. Their presence will help ease the transition of Brown or Maiava into the lineup, while giving the program a couple of intimidating defensive players who opposing coaches will have to account for every Saturday.
Rating: 9.5

Secondary

Projected Starters: The Trojans welcome back six players with starting experience, an ideal situation for a defensive backfield that led the Pac-10 in pass efficiency defense in 2007. With senior Kevin Ellison and junior Taylor Mays returning for another year, USC will have one of the nastiest safety tandems in America.

After getting named First Team All-Pac-10, the 6-1, 225-pound Ellison will be looking for more accolades in his final season on campus.  A devastating thumper and outstanding open-field tackler, he had 57 tackles, eight tackles for loss, two sacks, and six passes broken up. In terms of work ethic, Ellison has few peers on the roster.

Mays is an athletic oddity at free safety, a 6-4, 225-pound enforcer with the 4.3 wheels of an elite cornerback. Now entering his third season as a starter, he’s poised to become one of the emotional leaders of the defensive backfield and a candidate for more national honors.  In 2007, he was third on the team with 65 tackles, adding six pass breakups.

Taking the place of Terrell Thomas at one cornerback spot will be junior Shareece Wright, who’s coming off a solid spring that helped land him the job. A 6-0, 180-pounder, he’s the Trojans’ most physical corner, often lowering his shoulder and delivering pain like a strong safety. Wright had 29 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and four pass breakups as a reserve, setting the stage for what could be a breakthrough third season.

Wright will join forces with senior Cary Harris, a third-year starter and the secondary’s most reliable cover man. One of the Trojans’ fastest players, he has good size at 6-0 and 180 pounds, and the ability to go high in the air to deflect would-be connections. Harris parlayed 48 tackles and seven passes defended into All-Pac-10 honorable mention recognition.     

Projected Top Reserves: After missing most of the last two seasons with knee injuries, senior Josh Pinkard might finally be ready to rejoin the Trojans at either safety or cornerback. Before getting hurt, he was a brawny 6-1, 215-pounder with the speed to go stride-for-stride with any receiver. If Pinkard can make it back to the field, he’ll provide inspiration for the defense much the way Jeff Byers did for the offense last season.

Like Pinkard, CB Kevin Thomas is trying to make a comeback after missing most of the last two seasons with a variety of injuries. A starter in 2006 before breaking his left foot, he has ideal 6-1, 185-pound size and the flexible hips to be the Trojans most dependable cover guy off the bench and a threat to Wright’s spot atop the depth chart.

Whether it’s in 2009 or 2010, the successor to Mays at free safety figures to be sophomore Marshall Jones, a highly-touted player who saw limited action as a true freshman. A ferocious hitter at 6-0 and 185 pounds, he also has track speed and the versatility to play multiple positions.  Jones will letter this year, and move into the lineup next year if Mays leaves early for the NFL.

Watch Out For… the recoveries of Pinkard and Thomas, the cornerstones of the Trojans’ second unit.  If either or both struggle to get back to pre-injury form, USC will face a serious shortage of depth and experience beyond the starters.
Strength: The safeties. In Ellison and Mays, USC is home to a couple of hard-hitting enforcers with All-America potential. If Pinkard is even close to where he was a couple of years ago, no program in the country will be able to match them at the position.
Weakness: Takeaways. For two consecutive years, the Trojan secondary has had a paucity of interceptions, picking off just eight passes a year ago. Half of those came from Thomas, who’s now with the New York Giants, so someone needs to step and become a ball-hawk.
Outlook: USC has had the Pac-10’s best pass defense two years running. There’s more than enough returning talent and former prep All-Americans to run that streak to three, although a few more interceptions would be nice. Sure to get picked on early, Wright needs to give opposing quarterbacks a reason to not look to his side.
Rating: 9

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Put in the impossible situation of succeeding the deceased Mario Danelo, senior David Buehler had a remarkable debut as the Trojan kicker, hitting 16-of-19 field goal attempts and ably handling kickoff duties. Although there weren’t many opportunities to show it off, the 6-2, 225-pounder has a powerful leg that allows him to reach the uprights well beyond 50 yards.

One-time walk-on Greg Woidneck has performed like one over the last two seasons, failing to bring much consistency to the USC punting game. At or near the bottom of the bottom of the Pac-10 since winning the job in 2006, he averaged just 37.9 yards and had three punts blocked, putting sophomore Billy O’Malley in a position to contend for snaps.  

Speedy sophomore Ronald Johnson is back to handle kickoff returns a year after averaging 24.8 yards and finishing fourth in the Pac-10.  He’ll be joined by junior C.J. Gable, who’s also capable of breaking open a game with even a sliver of daylight.

On punt returns, sophomore Joe McKnight averaged just 8.4 yards in his first season, a far cry from what he’s capable of achieving in the open field.  

Watch Out For… McKnight to take at least one punt back for six. Although he never really got comfortable on special teams in his first year, he’s way too explosive and elusive in open space to not blossom into one of the game’s more lethal return guys.
Strength
: Buehler. A major unknown this time last year, Buehler has quickly blossomed into one of the Pac-10’s better kickers, a strong-legged senior who booms the ball on kickoffs and isn’t shy about burying an unsuspecting return man with an eye on the end zone.
Weakness: Woidneck. It’s a good thing USC houses one of the nation’s nastiest defenses because it’ll continue to get no help from the punting game. Woidneck has been sub par the past two seasons, the main reason the Trojans were 104th nationally in net punting in 2007.
Outlook: While USC will rarely live and die by the special teams unit, it would help if it could milk more from a return game that was surprisingly feeble a year ago. Buehler is fast becoming an asset whenever he can drive his big leg into the ball.
Rating
: 8

 
  

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