Core of freshmen bring back memories

Defense — it’s been a trademark of USC football.

Sure, we always hear about Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Mike Williams, the high-powered offenses during those years when former USC coach Pete Carroll was around. Those Trojans’ teams boasted some of the most electrifying players in the nation.

Though the Trojans sported one of the most high-powered offenses in the nation, their defense was just as good, if not better. But it seems as if defense is always undervalued and not as recognized, no matter how talented and no matter how good they might be.

As fans, we like the eye-popping jukes, the one-two dance steps around a defender, the amazing leaping ability to nab a pass in the end zone. Not too many people care for the defense sans the big hit, which, in USC’s case, would likely result in a suspension.

Under Carroll, a great defense was almost a given. Former linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. had a knack for bringing in talented four- and five-star recruits. USC had a reputation for developing linebackers. Forget about Tailback U. What about Linebacker U? And yes, let’s forget about Penn State for one moment here.

Lofa Tatupu, Keith Rivers, Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews III and Kaluka Maiava come to mind. And in 2005, three highly touted freshmen linebackers — Maualuga, Cushing, Maiava — and one walk-on — Matthews — ultimately became the backbone of the USC defense.

As freshmen and sophomores, significant playing time paved their way to success. As seniors, they spearheaded arguably one of the best defenses in USC history and those four were heralded as arguably the best linebacking corps in the history of college football.

And it was for good reason.

The Trojans’ defense that year ranked first in the nation in points allowed (7.8) and total yards allowed per contest (206.1).  Their rush defense ranked fifth in the nation, allowing just under 84 rushing yards per game.

This year a very similar situation might be playing out right before us. Against Colorado, USC coach Lane Kiffin elected to start freshmen linebackers Lamar Dawson and Tre Madden and redshirt freshman Hayes Pullard. Redshirt freshman Dion Bailey, who regularly starts, was out because of an injury. Going forward, Kiffin stated that Dawson will remain the starter. With that in mind, we could see Dawson, Pullard and Bailey, all freshmen, all starting for the remaining three games this year.

Despite their youth, Bailey and Pullard rank No. 1 and No. 2 on the team in tackles, respectively. Their play, and the play of the defense in general in the last four games, has been a key reason for USC’s improvement on defense. The Trojans held California to just nine points and Bailey picked off quarterback Zach Maynard twice. The Notre Dame running game was limited to just 41 rushing yards. Even Stanford’s vaunted rushing attack was held to just 3.9 yards per carry after averaging more than five yards per carry coming into the contest.

This season, the defense ranks 19th in the nation in rush defense, allowing more than 106 yards per contest. It has allowed just 13 rushing touchdowns this year, and only five in the last four games.

Many of us might criticize the defense for its shortcomings or even point the finger at assistant coach Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 schemes and a lot of its struggles. The defense has surely bent, and bent a lot, but it really hasn’t broken yet. When looking at this defense, however, it is still relatively young top to bottom. And it’s about time to recognize what this current unit is doing, especially the linebackers, and what it will look like in just a couple years.

Yes, it might be premature to say that Bailey, Pullard, Dawson and Madden will turn into a Maualuga, Cushing, Matthews and Maiava-like four-some.

But in a year or two, this linebacking corps could turn out to be really special.


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