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2009 USC Preview - Defense
USC S Taylor Mays
CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - USC Trojan Defense
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What you need
Losing seven starters at a place like USC can mean just one
thing: It’s time to anoint a new wave of stars. The way the
Trojans recruit and coach, even the departures of NFL types,
like Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing, and Clay Matthews, aren’t
enough to derail this defense. Sure, it may not be historically
good, like a year ago, but it’ll remain plenty stingy and
ridiculously fast. It all starts with All-America FS Taylor
Mays, the top cop in the nation’s top secondary. The linebackers
will be young, but their talent and upside is indisputable. Up
front, there are an unusual amount of question marks, putting
pressure on DE Everson Griffen to deliver the season of his
life. Tuck aside names, like Armond Armstead, Chris Galippo,
Malcolm Smith, and Shareece Wright. They may be unfamiliar
today, but odds are that they won’t be by Halloween.
of the defense: Senior FS Taylor Mays
Tackles: Taylor Mays, 53
Sacks: Everson Griffen, 4.5
Interceptions: Kevin Thomas, Drew McAllister, 3
Player who has to step up and become a star:
Junior DE Everson Griffen
Unsung star on the rise: Junior
CB Shareece Wright
pro prospect: Mays
three all-star candidates: 1)
Mays, 2) Senior SS Josh Pinkard, 3) Griffen
Strength of the defense: Pass
defense, red zone defense, team speed
Weakness of the defense: Front
seven turnover, the pass rush
Even at USC, you can’t lose Sedrick Ellis, Lawrence Jackson,
Clay Matthews, Fili Moala, and Kyle Moore over the span of two
years and not feel a little pain. The one lineman most capable
of maintaining the Trojans’ tradition up front is 6-3, 280-pound
junior Everson Griffen.
He has the speed, power, and quickness to be a star pass-rusher,
but needs to remain focused and play at a high level every down.
If he can carry his monster spring into the fall, last year’s 18
tackles, six tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks will be a distant
The other outside spot is a little more up in the
air. For now, the edge belongs to 6-5, 295-pound sophomore
Armond Armstead, who
was a reserve defensive tackle as a rookie last season. He
clearly has talent and the strength to be a stopper in run
defense, but he’ll need to prove he has the explosiveness and
get-off to prevent offenses from doubling Griffen.
losing his job at defensive tackle a year ago, 6-2, 295-pound
junior Averell Spicer
is determined to be a regular from wire-to-wire. Compared to
Ellis when he first arrived, he’s yet to even approach that
level of production, making just eight stops as a part-timer
last season. He’s quick and plays with a good pad level, but is
running out of time if he has any hope of playing past 2009.
The battle at nose tackle is an interesting one that could
go deep into August before being decided. Junior
Christian Tupou rates
a slight edge based on his ten starts to close out the 2008
season. A good athlete, with an ever better motor, he brings a
certain intensity and fire to the Trojan front. However,
remaining in the lineup will require more than the dozen tackles
and three tackles for loss he produced a year ago.
Projected Top Reserves:
It’s a toss-up right now whether Tupou or 6-1, 295-pound
Jurrell Casey will open the season as the starting nose tackle. The
2008 Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year, he earned valuable
reps in a dozen games and made a dozen stops. Very quick out of
his stance, he has the ability to beat blockers off the snap and
quickly get penetration.
There’s also a heated
competition brewing at defensive end. While hardly alone in this
quest, 6-5, 245-pound sophomore
performed in the offseason as if he plans to be the first end
off the sidelines. At a minimum, he has the closing speed and
long arms to do plenty of damage as a situational pass rusher.
He showed flashes in limited duty, collecting a pair of sacks,
and will only improve with a little more weight and experience.
Watch Out For…
the newcomers. The Trojans can use some help on the defensive
line for a change. True freshman
Devon Kennard and Mt.
San Antonio (Calif.) Junior College transfer
Hebron Fangupo might
be ready to provide it immediately on the outside and inside,
respectively. Kennard was one of the most coveted ends in the
country and Fangupo is a 6-2, 330-pound space-eater.
Girth. As it stands right now, the starting defensive line
averages 6-3 and 285 pounds, a stout figure, especially in a
league that’s going to be noticeably light on top-flight
offensive lines. The Trojans won’t be as tough against the run
as last year, but this unit will make sure that it’s close.
pass rush. USC wasn’t otherworldly in this area in 2008, and
four of the top five sackers have graduated. It’ll be obvious to
everyone that Griffen is the clear-cut best pass rusher, which
means he better get accustomed to a lot of attention and
Outlook: Sure, about a hundred schools wish they had
Troy’s problems, but relatively speaking, this is one of the
weakest areas of the team. Remember, USC was gutted on the
ground versus Oregon State, and didn’t solve its problems until
Matthews was inserted into the lineup. Well, he’s gone, as is
Moala. An awful lot depends on the development of Griffen. If he
doesn’t blossom, the Trojans will be far more vulnerable than
normal on the first line of defense.
Well, you knew the day would eventually come, but that won’t
make replacing Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing, Kaluka Maiava any
easier. All three earned All-Pac-10 in December and were drafted
in April. No doubt that new stars will emerge, but it won’t be
an easy transition. One of those sure-fire up-and-comers is 6-2,
250-pound sophomore Chris
Galippo, the successor to Maualuga in the middle. The
top-rated high school linebacker of 2007, he got a taste of
action last year, making a dozen tackles and appearing in 10
games. Provided he can stay healthy, which is a concern, he has
the instincts, vision, and finishing skills to be the next big
thing at the position for USC.
While Galippo tends to get
more of the pub, 6-1, 225-pound junior
Malcolm Smith might
be on the verge of narrowing the gap. In terms of overall
athleticism, he’s on his own planet among the linebackers.
That’s no disrespect to the others, but he’s just a bolt of
lightning from the weakside, which will make valuable as a
blitzer and pass defender. The rare and coveted defensive
playmaker, he had 18 tackles in 2008, likely his last season of
Filling out the linebacker corps at
strongside will be 6-4, 220-pound junior
Michael Morgan, a key
reserve the last two seasons. A tall, rangy defender, he covers
an awful lot of ground in a short period of time, and has the
size to match up with tight ends. In a glimpse of the future, he
played very well in a reserve role, making 24 tackles and five
stops behind the line of scrimmage.
Projected Top Reserves:
No one doubts whether 6-2, 235-pound senior
Luthur Brown has the
talent to push for the starting strongside job, but he never
seems to be healthy long enough to show it. A back problem, in
particular, has plagued the former blue-chipper for much of his
career, forcing him to sit out the entire 2008 season. He looked
good in the spring, creating hope that he can provide backup to
Morgan this season.
Right behind Galippo at middle
linebacker is 6-0, 245-pound sophomore
Uona Kaveinga, who
got some garbage-time reps in his debut. A physical and
downright violent tackler, he’s the one player on this unit
capable of replacing Maualuga’s ability to intimidate other
teams. If he can rein it in a bit and not always go for the kill
shot, he’ll have an important role on this rebuilding unit.
Watch Out For…
the emergence of a whole new set of stars. No, they’re names
don’t currently roll off the tongue, like Cushing and Maualuga,
but give it a little bit of time. After all, this is USC. By
November, Galippo, Smith, and Morgan are liable to be familiar
well beyond just Southern California.
Speed. This year’s linebackers may not be as gifted as the 2008
edition, but they are absolutely faster. On the outside, Smith
and Morgan are the type of athletes, who’ll give the coaching
staff a ton of options on how they can be used. And Galippo is
no slouch, especially with his penchant for taking good angles
and zoning in on the ball.
Experience. All the talent in the world cannot replace
experience. This next generation of Trojan linebackers has
precious little of it. In fact, besides Morgan, who started the
Oregon game, when Maualuga was injured, no one has started a
game in his career. In other words, there will be a learning
curve in the early going.
not, Trojan fans. There will be life after Maualuga and Cushing.
It may not be as prolific, but USC recruits well enough,
especially here, to reload rather than rebuild at linebacker.
Galippo is a prototypical next-level middle linebacker and Smith
figures to be a tour de force once he’s turned loose. This group
will be just fine in 2009 and downright frightening by 2010.
Even after losing two starters to graduation, you’ll be
hard-pressed to find a more air-tight secondary than the one at
USC. It all begins with 6-3, 235-pound senior FS
Taylor Mays, a
fourth-year starter and two-time All-American. His physical
resume reads like a fable, blending the size and pop of a
linebacker with the speed and agility of a cornerback. He’s able
to do things on the field that no free safety in recent memory
can even approach. Last year’s 53 tackles and nine pass breakups
don’t do justice to the number of times he obliterated and
intimidated opposing receivers.
Versatile 6-1, 215-pound
senior Josh Pinkard
is slotted in at strong safety, though he can also play corner
starting 11 games there last season. Like Jeff Byers
on offense, he’s an inspiration to the team, earning a sixth
year of eligibility after missing 2006 and 2007 to knee
injuries. In his return to action, he had 39 tackles and did a
fantastic job in pass coverage. Because of his size and physical
nature, he’s able to jam and bully receivers out of their
The new starting corners will be 6-1, 190-pound
senior Kevin Thomas and 6-0, 185-pound junior
Shareece Wright. Like Pinkard, Thomas missed most of the last two
seasons before finally being healthy for an entire year. He
played in all 13 games, starting a pair and collecting 15
tackles, two sacks, three picks, and seven pass breakups. He’s
got the right size and cover skills to reacquaint himself with
pro scouts in his final year of eligibility.
started the first two games of 2008 and appeared headed for a
breakthrough season before a hairline fracture in his neck put
him on the shelf. When healthy, he’s the Trojans’ best cover
corner, a lockdown defender, who has the size, strength, speed,
and swagger to quickly blossom into an overnight sensation at
Projected Top Reserves: The program’s top safety off the
bench will be 6-1, 210-pound senior
Will Harris. Had
Pinkard not switched from cornerback in the offseason, he would
have gotten the nod at strong safety. A versatile all-around
defender, he’s played multiple positions, earning five starts
last season and making 38 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and two
T.J. Bryant spent
this offseason as if he plans on being a starting cornerback in
2010. For now, he’ll be the backup to Wright, digesting the
system and trying to improve on last year’s seven tackles. At
6-0 and 180 pounds, he’s another well-sized Trojan corner, who
exhibits good field awareness and playmaking skills.
Watch Out For…
Wright. He sure doesn’t get the same notoriety as Mays and
Pinkard, and he’s hardly a household name. That might be about
to change. The fact that he’s the best cover guy in this
secondary speaks volumes about his ability as a cornerback.
Healthy again, he’ll have the coming-out party that was set back
by a year.
Pass defense. No one patrols the air waves better than the
Trojans. Take last year, for instance. USC yielded just six
touchdown passes in 13 games and a paltry, nation’s-low 4.5
yards a pass attempt. They stick to receivers, make them pay for
the receptions, and give up very little ground in the secondary.
Durability. It’s splitting hairs, but where else do you go with
this category? The Trojan secondary has had injury problems in
the past. In fact, Wright, Thomas, and Pinkard have all missed
significant chunks of time at some point in their careers.
will have no problem maintaining its title as college football’s
best defensive backfield of the 21st century. The Trojans boast
the best safety tandem in America and an embarrassment of riches
at cornerback. Unless opposing quarterbacks have all day to
throw, they’ll again have one of the stingiest and feistiest
pass defenses this side of Gainesville.
The graduations of David Buehler and Greg Woidneck mean the
special teams unit will be undergoing a complete overhaul.
Battling to replace Buehler, an All-Pac-10 placekicker, are
senior Joe Houston
and senior Jordan Congdon,
who dueled to a dead heat in the spring. Neither has any
experience with the program, although Congdon did kick for
Nebraska early in his career. Very similar in stature and
kicking styles, both players are accurate, but don’t exhibit a
ton of leg strength.
At punter, junior
Billy O’Malley holds
an edge over sophomore
Boomer Roepke, who’s also a member of the Trojan swim team.
Neither was especially consistent in the spring, which means the
competition will be opened up again in August.
hard-pressed to find a more dynamic collection of athletes than
the Trojans that constitute the return game. Juniors
C.J. Gable and Ronald Johnson
will once again share kickoff duties after averaging a healthy
27.4 yards a return in 2008. Punts will be split between junior
Damian Williams, senior
Stafon Johnson, and
junior Joe McKnight,
who weren’t nearly as explosive. Johnson averaged less than 10
yards and was just No. 7 in the Pac-10.
Watch Out For…
transfer Jacob Harfman.
The Mt. San Antonio (Calif.) Junior College product could be the
most important Trojan newcomer this side of Matt Barkley. A
well-traveled JUCO All-American, with a booming leg, he’s going
to contend for the openings at placekicker, punter, and on
The return men. Although they should be even more explosiveness,
Gable, Williams, McKnight, and the Johnsons can strike fear into
special teams coaches simply by trotting on to the field. All of
them have great speed and are dangerous in the open field.
Uncertainty at punter and placekicker. Maybe the Trojans have
their answers on the roster or about to arrive. Or maybe not.
The concern is that none of the kickers have had to deliver for
USC in a big spot, so no one knows for sure how they’ll handle
Outlook: Harfman is going to be a key player, with the
potential to provide stability to multiple positions. Even if he
doesn’t arrive on a white horse, the Trojans will survive with a
combination of O’Malley and either Houston or Congdon. The
return men have all the tools to provide great field position to
an offense that might not need it.