Every year, across the country, the same thing happens: Schools hire a new head football coach or new assistants. Once spring practice starts, the new schemes and playbooks that each new coach brings are proclaimed to be so much better than those that came before.
Sure enough, early returns on new USC Defensive Coordinator Clancy Pendergast and his 5-2 defense are positive, and many are happily envisioning a 2013 season in which the spread offenses of other Pac-12 schools are utterly befuddled by Pendergast’s revolutionary new strategies.
But we’re smarter than that.
We know that, for the most part, the onus will be on both returning players and incoming freshmen to improve upon last season’s underwhelming performance, in which the Trojans finished fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring defense and seventh in total defense. Though these numbers were not awful, they definitely are not at the standard that should be expected of USC and its bevy of four- and five-star defensive recruits.
Though much will be made of Pendergast and his ability to “fix” the USC defense, whether or not that will be accomplished will mostly come as a result of returning players getting better and new players making an immediate impact.
For the former, the Trojans have a number of candidates. USC returns seven starters on the defensive side of the ball from a season ago, a group that does not include senior defensive end Devon Kennard, a starter from 2011 who missed all of last season because of injury. Each player had varying levels of success last year and all definitely have room for growth.
Chief among those who need to make the biggest leap is junior linebacker Lamar Dawson. Dawson was one of the most sought-after prep players in the country in 2011 and was given the honor of wearing jersey #55 in his first season on the team. The Kentucky native took over the starting role midway through his freshman season and started nine games last season, recording 77 tackles, good for fourth on the team.
But Dawson’s impact on defense has been a bit underwhelming. He has shown an inability to stand out, at least among fans, and has made few “big plays.” He recorded only two tackles behind the line of scrimmage last year and has just two interceptions and one forced fumble in his career.
To be blunt, much more was expected from Dawson when he arrived on campus. Injuries have played a part in his relative ineffectiveness. He’s dealt with an ankle sprain each of the last two seasons, but a large reason why USC’s defense faltered a year ago was because of Dawson’s failure to establish himself in the middle of the field, something that he will have to do this year if the defense is to make any significant strides.
Of course, there is always the possibility Dawson gets benched in favor of a more successful combination of linebackers. But at 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, he has the potential to wreak havoc on opposing offenses, and the coaching staff would much rather have him earn playing time than get beaten out by someone else.
USC also has the luxury of several freshmen who can make an instant impact on the defensive side. The player that seems to be the leading candidate to play right away is defensive back Su’a Cravens. The versatile player has already received rave reviews from USC players and coaches alike during the first few spring practices of his career. He’s even drawn comparisons to former players Nickell Robey and Robert Woods, who started in the first game of their freshman seasons.
What makes Cravens’ expected impact even more exciting is that it will come in the secondary, an area in dire need for the 2013 Trojans. USC ranked sixth in the conference in pass-defense efficiency last year and must replace three starters: Robey and safeties T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling. The only returning player with any starting experience is defensive back Josh Shaw, a Florida transfer who has played both cornerback and safety.
Having Cravens step in right away would be huge, because the last thing the secondary needs is a revolving door situation at multiple positions, much like last year’s second cornerback spot. And with fellow freshman defensive back Leon McQuay III also standing out in the early going, it isn’t hard to envision a tandem of Cravens and McQuay as a mainstay on the backline for years to come.
Change for the sake of change is not a good thing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Trojans’ new 5-2 defensive scheme will hinder its performance next season. What it’s going to come down to is how all this amassed talent can gel together. And if returning and incoming players can create some semblance of synergy, then performances like last year’s awful Oregon game will be nothing but a distant, terrible memory.
“Inside the 20s” runs Thursdays. To comment on this story, email Nick at email@example.com or visit dailytrojan.com.