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2010 USC Preview – Defense
USC LB Malcolm Smith
CollegeFootballNews.com 2010 Preview - USC Trojan Defense
Preview 2010 - Defense
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What you need to know: What do you get when you combine coordinator Monte Kiffin with the kind of talent he was used to seeing in the NFL? A whole lot of interesting potential. The Trojans have the staff and they have the raw materials, so even without Pete Carroll and the entire secondary, they’ll still be plenty ornery in 2010. The key will be that defensive backfield, which is being completely retooled around CB Shareece Wright, a possible breakout star in his finale. Even without Everson Griffen, the front seven will be among the best in the Pac-10. Up front, Jurrell Casey, Nick Perry, and Armond Armstead have All-Pac-10 ceilings. And at linebacker, returning starters Chris Galippo, Michael Morgan, and Malcolm Smith are being joined by D-line import Devon Kennard, who could make waves here. USC will be a little more vulnerable than in the past, but it still harbors a ton of elite talent on defense. It’s going to be interesting to see how quickly the new staff can mold it.
Star of the defense: Junior DT Jurrell Casey
Tackles: Malcolm Smith, 72
Sacks: Nick Perry, 8
Interceptions: Chris Galippo, 2
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior CB Shareece Wright
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Devon Kennard
Best pro prospect: Wright
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Casey, 2) Junior LB Chris Galippo, 3) Wright
Strength of the defense: D-line depth, run defense, team speed, creating pressure
Weakness of the defense: Depth in the back seven, rebuilt secondary, takeaways, third down defense
Projected Starters: For the Trojans, a ton of defensive linemen return to a group that lost only DE Everson Griffen to the pros. Filling in on one side will be 6-5, 295-pound junior Armond Armstead, a classic strongside end with a shot to have his breakout season. Never quite right after breaking his foot in the preseason, he finished the year with just six tackles. However, the end in a tackle’s body possesses the strength to be a dominant run-stopper and just enough quickness to make plays for minus yards. With a full season of work, he could be talking to the NFL Advisory Committee in December.
Battling for the weakside end position will be 6-3, 250-pound sophomore Nick Perry , who authored an auspicious debut for the program. Despite starting just a single game, he wound up with 24 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and eight sacks. Most of his production came before injuring his shoulder, raising questions about his ceiling had he been healthy all year. Explosive off the snap and often too quick for opposing tackles, he’ll be even more ferocious now that he’s packed on more muscle.
The star on the inside is 6-1, 295-pound junior Jurrell Casey, who came into his own a year ago and earned All-Pac-10 honorable mention. A classic two-tech tackle, he explodes out of his stance and can bust through the gap to make penetration. A very difficult assignment because of combination of strength, quickness, and heavy hands, he gobbled up 59 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and three fumble recoveries a year ago. If he keeps sharpening his technique, All-American recognition won’t be far behind.
Nose tackle became a lot more complicated when projected starter Christian Tupou was lost for the year to a knee injury. There’s hope that massive junior Hebron Fangupo, who’s recovering from an injury of his own, can help fill the void. A 6-2, 330-pound former transfer from Mt. San Antonio Junior College, he was built to clog the middle of the line and allow teammates to make plays. He’s staring at an opportunity of a lifetime to plug a glaring hole in the defensive line while making a name for himself.
Projected Top Reserves: Giving Perry all he can handle on the outside is 6-5, 255-pound sophomore Wes Horton. He started the first nine games of his rookie year, but had trouble getting much of a push, making just 23 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and a sack. The staff is holding out hope that with that year of seasoning, his size and strength will translate into more production and better disengagement from blockers.
The light appears to have gone on for 6-4, 295-pound junior DaJohn Harris, great news for the Trojans’ depth on the inside. Just when it looked as if he’d be a career journeyman, making just 14 tackles and two stops for loss, he wowed the new staff in the spring with his athleticism and playmaking ability. Yeah, it was only April, but if he can build from there, he’ll earn a valuable spot in the rotation at tackle behind Casey.
Watch Out For … Perry to hold off Horton and continue blossoming into a star. Okay, so he doesn’t possess prototypical size on the outside for this program. Big deal. All he does is make plays and harass quarterbacks, which is precisely why he’ll be difficult to keep on the sidelines in 2010.
Strength: Depth. Even without the services of Tupou, this could be USC’s deepest defensive line in years. There’s size, experience, and talent everywhere, which will help keep everyone fresh and the opposition gassed. It wouldn’t shock anyone if Casey, Perry, and Armstead all finished the season on the Pac-10 honor roll.
Weakness: Lapses in run defense. In aggregate, last season wasn’t too bad, but remember the disasters versus Oregon and Stanford. The Trojans need to bring it on run defense week-in and week-out, a goal that’ll be aided by the emergence of a new nose tackle to supplant Tupou.
Outlook: The Trojans are in terrific shape up front, which will have a ripple effect that reaches the second and third levels of defense. There’s enough size and quickness to be a handful on a weekly basis. Oh, and don’t discount the importance of Ed Orgeron, one of the nation’s premier D-line coaches. The keys will be Perry, who’ll have to ignite the pass rush, and at nose tackle, where a sure-thing starter won’t emerge until August.
Unit Rating: 8.5
Projected Starters: There was life after Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing. It just wasn’t a particularly pleasant life. The Trojans got shoved around too often, a rare occurrence in these parts. The good news is that everyone is back, including honorable mention All-Pac-10 junior Chris Galippo in the middle. Now, he’s being pushed for the job, a reality that’ll continue in the summer. The 6-2, 250-pounder overcome a series of injuries to start for the first time in 2009, making 70 tackles, eight tackles for loss, two picks, and six pass breakups. A terrific run defender, he has the instincts, vision, and physicality to climb further up the conference honor roll in 2010.
Back at weakside will be 6-1, 225-pound senior Malcolm Smith, the team’s second-leading tackler with 72 stops, six tackles for loss, and three pass breakups. A dynamite all-around athlete, he has the best range among the linebackers, making plays from sideline-to-sideline and deep into the secondary. The rare and treasured playmaker on this side of the ball, he has the closing speed and intensity to be a game-changer for the Trojans.
The most tenuous grip on a starting job belongs to 6-4, 220-pound senior Michael Morgan, the frontrunner at strongside. A regular for the first nine games before being employed mostly on passing downs, he finished with 50 tackles, a team-high 13 tackles for loss, and four sacks. A long and defender, he covers plenty of ground in a short period of time, and has the size to match up with tight ends. Whether or not he keeps the job, he’s far too disruptive and athletic to stay on the bench for very long.
Projected Top Reserves: The most interesting development of the offseason surrounded the shift of 6-3, 255-pound sophomore Devon Kennard from end to linebacker, where he’s challenging Galippo. One of the nation’s most decorated recruits of 2009, he didn’t disappoint, starting down the stretch and making 34 stops. Seeking more toughness, intensity, and quickness on the inside, the new staff may have located an exciting answer in No. 42.
At weakside, 6-1, 210-pound junior Shane Horton will continue to be a valuable performer off the bench and on special teams. A former starting safety at UNLV, he was in on 30 stops in his first season after transferring. From his days in the secondary, he does a nice job in pass defense and has the range to make plays all over the field. While not a threat to start until 2011, he’s a great player to have coming off the bench.
Watch Out For … the staff to flirt with the idea of moving Galippo to strongside in order to get the three best linebackers on the field. It’s going to be very difficult keeping Kennard on the sidelines, and it’s not as if Morgan was ascending as last year progressed.
Galippo played some snaps on the outside in the spring, which might have been a sneak peek.
Strength: Experience. Unlike a year ago, when USC was in full rebuilding mode, this year’s edition welcomes back four players who started a bunch of games in 2009. Heck, throw in Horton, and you’ve got five linebackers with FBS starting experience. That’s a lot of reps to call on for a unit top heavy with upperclassmen.
Weakness: Attitude. In very un-Trojan-like fashion, the linebackers were pushed around last season, something the staff caught immediately when looking at film. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with speed and finesse, but USC has to do a better job of holding up at the point attack and shutting down running lanes.
Outlook: While the learning curve was a little steeper than anyone anticipated a year ago, the linebackers return a season older and with even more depth now that Kennard has joined. Collectively, they’ve got enough athleticism to make a ton of big plays, blitzing the quarterback and defending the pass. Kennard’s role will be one of the most talked about defensive subjects throughout the summer.
Unit Rating: 8
Projected Starters: Well, it couldn’t last forever. After enjoying one of the country’s best defensive backfields, USC has been virtually wiped out by graduation. The Trojans will regroup around 6-0, 185-pound senior Shareece Wright, who has the tools and the chance to use his final year as a springboard to the NFL. He’s been snake-bit over the last two seasons, missing most of 2008 with a hairline fracture in his neck and 2009 for academic reasons. Forget just Troy. He has the strength, speed, and swagger to be the Pac-10’s best lockdown cover corner.
Joining Wright at cornerback? That won’t be determined until the summer, at least. If nothing else, 6-0, 180-pound junior T.J. Bryant will enjoy an edge in experience, lettering in each of the last two seasons and making 22 stops as a key reserve a year ago. He has good size and leaping ability, but looked overmatched in coverage at times in the spring, a trend he better reverse when the team reconvenes later in the summer.
Free safety appears to be the domain of 6-2, 205-pound sophomore T.J. McDonald , one of the few rookies to get on the field last year. He made seven tackles on defense and special teams, but more important, got a better feel for the speed of the game. As far as long-term potential goes, he’s the total package at the position, covering like a corner and defending the run with intensity. Given time and reps, he’s capable of following in father Tim’s footsteps by becoming a Trojan All-American.
Sophomore Jawanza Starling has played his way to a starting strong safety role this offseason. The 6-1, 190-pounder is a tremendous physical specimen, with the closing speed to cut off passing lanes and be employed on blitzes. While still very raw, the coaching staff loves his potential to eventually emerge as one of the disruptive and frenetic playmakers out of the secondary.
Projected Top Reserves: Assuming he makes it all the way back from hip surgery, 6-1, 195-pound junior Drew McAllister will compete for playing time at safety behind Starling. A former quarterback in high school, he’s been a key reserve the last two seasons, making 15 tackles in 2009. He has good instincts for the position and a knack for being around the ball.
If Bryant can’t turn things around in the summer, 6-1, 175-pound redshirt freshman Torin Harris will be the likely beneficiary. He took some first team reps in the spring, and will have ideal size once he packs on some more muscle. While there’s a lot to be learned in terms of fundamentals, he has a high ceiling as a cover corner.
Watch Out For … Wright. Is this the year he puts it all together and becomes an elite cornerback? The skills are clearly there, but now he has to avoid one of the pitfalls that have sidetracked his career. If he’s anything but outstanding, it’ll be a long year for the Trojan pass defense.
Strength: Athletic ability. No surprise here. The Trojans simply don’t recruit plodding defensive backs, and this group is no exception. While raw in many cases, all of the cornerbacks and safeties pass the eye test and have outstanding triangle numbers.
Weakness: Experience. How green are these Trojan defensive backs? Wright is the veteran, and he hasn’t started a game in almost two years. With as many as three underclassmen vying for a starting assignment, the pass defense is going to take its lumps during the fall.
Outlook: There’s no easy way to navigate the loss of all four starters, especially when each member of the quartet got some all-star recognition. It’s time to rebuild in the secondary around the likes of McDonald and Starling, who have exciting futures. The key in the short-term will be Wright, who must finally live up to his considerable potential.
Unit Rating: 7.5
Projected Starters: In one of the more interesting battles of the offseason, senior Joe Houston will take a slight edge into the summer in the race at placekicker. Despite having no relevant experience at this level, the former El Camino (Calif.) Junior College transfer has kicked with enough accuracy to have a shot at holding on to this spot into the opener.
Houston is getting challenged by senior Jacob Harfman, who’ll also serve as the team’s punter. While he’s exhibited his leg strength on kickoffs, concerns about his accuracy could be the difference in this competition. As the Trojan punter, his first out of Mt. San Antonio (Calif.), he averaged just under 40 yards, but has the pop to do much more in his final year.
While seniors C.J. Gable and Ronald Johnson, and sophomore Curtis McNeal will compete for touches on kickoff returns, the punt return spot is wide-open now that Damian Williams has left early for the NFL.
Watch Out For … Houston. Is he ready? He might not have much of a choice, especially if Harfman proves incapable of splitting the uprights with accuracy. Faced with the prospect of playing in more tight games than in recent years, the Trojans are going to need a reliable kicker who can be counted on in the clutch.
Strength: Punt coverage. Only two programs were stingier than the Trojans, which yielded just 35 total yards on 17 punts for a two-yard average. Considering the athletes the program can roll out on special teams, it’s no wonder that opposing returners had little room to navigate.
Weakness: Uncertainty at placekicker. For the second straight year, the Trojans have a glaring question mark at kicker. With no experience at this level, can Houston be expected to come through consistently in Pac-10 games? Until the season begins, no one will have any clue about the answer.
Outlook: There’s nothing special to see here. The punter is average, the placekicker is an unknown, and the return game loses its best performer. The Trojans were air-tight in punt coverage, but were the exact inverse on kick coverage. This will be one of the more mediocre units on the 2010 squad.
Unit Rating: 7