The old adage “defense wins championships” certainly holds true, but after the NCAA ruled USC would not be bowl-eligible for at least another year, a BCS national championship is out of the question.
This, however, has not deterred the players one bit.
“[The NCAA ruling is] something we can’t control and we need to accept what we got,” sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey said. “They never said we couldn’t win every game, so that’s our goal.”
One year removed from a new coaching staff and the famed Tampa 2 defense, devised by assistant coach Monte Kiffin, USC understands it must get better — a lot better.
Statistically, the Trojans surrendered 400 yards per game, which was the worst mark since the school began keeping track in 1955, and allowed opposing offenses to score almost 27 points per contest, which was the second worst mark in school history.
Another glaring weakness was the failure to stop teams on third down, as USC allowed teams almost a 44 percent conversion rate.
“On defense, we have to improve everywhere,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said at Pac-12 media day. “There’s a lot of areas to address, specifically on our back end, two-minute defense and explosive plays.”
Despite its struggles just a year ago, nine key players, seven of whom were starters, return on defense. Anchoring the secondary will be junior safety T.J. McDonald, who led the team in tackles last year and was named a preseason All-American candidate.
Returning with McDonald in the backfield will be Robey, who started all 13 games at cornerback as a true freshman last year.
“We have a whole new fire to us that we didn’t have in the past,” McDonald said. “We’re motivated and we have a chip on our shoulder, so we’ll be ready to play.”
With McDonald and Robey anchoring the secondary, fifth-year senior linebacker Chris Galippo returns to stabilize a linebacker unit that lost Malcolm Smith and Michael Morgan to the NFL.
Last year, Galippo starred on special teams, but this year, he will be the leader of the front-seven at middle linebacker.
“I mean, obviously, the ‘mic’ linebacker is forced to be the most vocal guy on defense,” Galippo said. “So, it’s a good thing I’m naturally pretty outgoing and loud. But you know, you gotta get everyone lined up and you really have to understand the concepts and the schemes.”
Galippo’s move to middle linebacker allows junior Devon Kennard to play his natural position at defensive end, where he starred in high school. Kennard, along with juniors Wes Horton and Nick Perry, form a talented trio the coaching staff believes can be very special.
“Our defensive line has potential to be a very strong group,” Kiffin said at Pac-12 media day. “As you look at the conference, it’s more important not to have big linebackers, but to have fast defensive ends. With [Devon Kennard], Wes Horton and Nick Perry, that’s three premier defensive ends right there.”
With Kennard, Horton and Perry at the ends, senior defensive tackles DaJohn Harris and Armond Armstead return to form a very experienced group up front.
The front-seven will be looking to improve upon last season, where they allowed 140.5 yards on the ground and 4.4 yards per carry, the worst YPC allowed by a USC defense since 1991.
The coaching staff has focused on stopping the run, putting more pressure on the quarterback and forcing turnovers in the off-season.
“We’ve always emphasized [turnovers],” Galippo said. “But we’ve emphasized it more from a player’s perspective. The leaders are doing a good job of making sure they take initiative, getting strip attempts and running to the football.”
This year, without having to deal with a no-tackling policy in practice and a new defensive system, the team is optimistic.
“We’re getting better and better each day,” Robey said. “We’re getting closer as a unit. It’s an important year for us to see how much work we’ve put in and how much we’ve improved [from last season].”