Defense still has plenty of swagger

With time to kill before “Salute to Troy” and fall camp wrapping up, a horde of freshmen and their parents flocked to Howard Jones Field on Saturday to catch a glimpse of this football team everyone’s been making such a fuss about.

There were the diehards who could spot any player, even the incoming freshmen, and recite their name immediately. But many in attendance were armed with rosters, a helpful aid in answering an important question.

Who are these guys?

The offensive players are more easy and fun to point out. There’s the freshman wunderkind vying for the starting quarterback position, his lanky competition waiting to get healthy and back in the race and the speedy tailback waiting for a breakout junior season.

Putting a face on the defense, however, proved at times more difficult — unless it was senior Taylor Mays.

As the lone player on USC’s media guide and perhaps the most recognizable member of the team, it would be easy to reduce USC’s defense to Mays. But Pete Carroll’s units have always transcended being about one star. It’s a collective effort that requires collaboration to establish a group dynamic.

And if you asked most fans strolling by Tommy Trojan to name a starter on defense other than Mays, I’d bet that you’d get quizzical looks and a few responses asking whether Rey Maualuga still had any eligibility left.

It’s not for a lack of talent that the unit’s individual players aren’t as recognizable as their predecessors ­— of the projected starters, only redshirt senior Josh Pinkard was rated lower than a four-star prospect coming out of high school, and he’s more than outplayed that ranking.

But even when many of these players were playing important roles as spot players last year, they had players like Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Kevin Ellison to set the tone. Those players ultimately molded the defense in their own image.

Almost all of the players have shown flashes in fall camp, if not games themselves. But most fans aren’t diehard enough to analyze fourth-quarter blowouts and spring scrimmages, so they can be forgiven if the first thing that pops to mind when they think of junior Malcolm Smith is still “Steve Smith’s brother” instead of “starting weakside linebacker.”

Head coach Pete Carroll is the ultimate sculptor in all of this, as he is the mastermind behind how the defense will look. But the appearance is somewhat fluid and depends on the players. Carroll was so enamored with how aggressive the defense was last year that he began opining about downplaying the importance of reducing penalties so long as the Trojans could keep points off the board.

Getting a handle on what this group will be like is hard given that we’ve only seen bits and pieces, but if Saturday’s scrimmage was any indication, the Trojans’ defense once again has plenty of swagger, and reason for it.

The only points scored on the day came courtesy of a safety — linebacker Shane Horton leveled tailback Curtis McNeal in the backfield — and the defense recorded six sacks. With each stop, the defense got more amped up, hooting and hollering along the way.

“It was game-like with the way they were running and hitting out there,” Carroll said, while still scolding the offense for their various shortcomings throughout the day.

It may be unfair to crown the defense kings of camp after the performance given the offensive players that were out for the day (redshirt sophomore Aaron Corp, redshirt junior Damian Williams, redshirt senior Charles Brown and redshirt junior Allen Bradford all sat out). But it’s clear that the unit is ahead of the curve.

If confidence is one facet of the new defense’s personality, then composure will have to be another. Carroll’s units have been about being in the right place at the right time more than about backbreaking plays, and this defense will have to follow suit. With a full house guaranteed for Ohio State and fans screaming like they were trying to cause seismic activity in Michigan, USC will have to know where to be without much communication.

If the defense isn’t up to the early test of character, the Buckeyes could find their opening. While still not an advanced passer, sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor is a big enough threat running the ball that he can make USC pay the same way Dennis Dixon did in 2007.

The defense does not have to reinvent the wheel when carving out its niche. Mays and Carroll are obsessed with USC history and spoke of the school’s past great defenders at Pac-10 media day almost as much as they talked about current members of the team. If the team can maintain the steady level of elite play that has been a hallmark of USC defenses under Carroll, he won’t care what the public’s image of the group is.

No matter what, though, the group will have four months to make their presence known around campus as well as on the field.

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