2009 USC Preview - Defense
USC S Taylor Mays
USC S Taylor Mays
Posted Jun 18, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - USC Trojan Defense

USC Trojans

Preview 2009
- Defense

- 2009 CFN USC Preview | 2009 USC Offense
- 2009 USC Defense | 2009 USC Depth Chart
- 2008 CFN USC Preview | 2007 USC Preview | 2006 CFN USC Preview 

What you need to know: 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.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Taylor Mays, 53
Sacks: Everson Griffen, 4.5
Interceptions: Kevin Thomas, Drew McAllister, 3

Star of the defense: Senior FS Taylor Mays
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior DE Everson Griffen
Unsung star on the rise: Junior CB Shareece Wright
Best pro prospect: Mays
Top 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

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: 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 memory.

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.

After 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 Malik Johnson 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.
Strength: 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.   
Weakness: The 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 double-teams.
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.
Rating: 7.5


Projected Starters: 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 total anonymity.

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.
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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.
Outlook: Fret 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.
Rating: 8


Projected Starters: 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 rhythm.

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.

Wright 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 the position.

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 interceptions.

Sophomore 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.
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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.
Outlook: USC 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.
Rating: 10

Special Teams

Projected Starters: 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.

You’d be 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 kickoffs.
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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 the pressure.
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.
Rating: 7.5