During the latter days of training camp, Ed Orgeron stood near the corner of Howard Jones Field, arms crossed and carrying a slight grin. He knew the answer to the question, but he cared not to say, really, or even elaborate much.
“You’re sandbagging a little, aren’t you?” a reporter asked. “You guys are better than anybody realizes.”
He responded, bellowing: “We’re staying hungry, just staying hungry.”
It hardly meant much, of course.
And when again asked about USC’s untested but developing defensive line, he offered a familiar response: “staying hungry.”
Call it his patented way of filibustering. The Trojans’ poker-faced defensive coordinator was keeping his cards particularly close to his chest that day. He didn’t want to boast — at least not publicly. There was no itch to grab a microphone and make any sort of sweeping declaration.
Maybe the unit, a subject of much preseason scrutiny because of questions surrounding its inexperience, would be OK after all. But Orgeron, who also serves as USC’s defensive line coach, saw no reason to spread the news up and down the Pacific Coast.
So instead he opted to keep grinning and nodding, repeating the same two words until eventually a new question and a new topic was presented.
But with roughly one-third of the season completed the secret — and it’s hardly much of one now — is out: USC’s defensive line is rather good.
In the team’s latest win, a 27-9 drubbing of California at the Coliseum last Saturday, USC recorded seven sacks against rattled quarterback Zach Maynard — the most in a game since posting the same total in a 2007 matchup against Oregon State. And on the season thus far, USC ranks third out of 124 Football Bowl Subdivision teams with 16 sacks, one behind the nation’s leaders, Tulsa and San Jose State.
So now we know what Orgeron knew in August. We know the defensive line is quick. We know it’s deeper than in the last couple seasons. We know it’s shouldering much of the load at the moment.
Oddly enough, in several respects, the defense line — once the question mark — might very well be the strength of the defense. Against the Golden Bears, it pressured Maynard by rushing just four down linemen, dropping everyone else into pass coverage. There was little need to blitz a linebacker, or a safety, or a cornerback, which certainly makes it easier for the secondary.
And that’s a bit of a surprise. For one, the Trojans had already lost two starters from a season ago in DaJohn Harris and Nick Perry, who each left for the NFL and now play for the Tennessee Titans and Green Bay Packers, respectively. Not to mention, returning senior defensive end Devon Kennard tore a pectoral muscle while weightlifting in late July.
In spite of this, USC’s gotten quite a bit of production from its newest players, junior defensive end Morgan Breslin, a transfer from Diablo Valley Junior College in Pleasant Hill, Calif., and freshman defensive tackle Leonard Williams. The two combined for 5.5 sacks against Cal. And Breslin’s total, 3.5, marked the highest by a USC player since Lawrence Jackson recorded four sacks at Arizona State on Thanksgiving 2007.
So you’d think by now Orgeron would spill the news and maybe boast, at least a little. After all, his group is ahead of the curve and better than most anticipated, especially this early.
“They’ve performed well,” he said Saturday.
And then came the qualifier.
“But the competition is going to get stiffer. How they respond throughout the season will be important — a lot of ball is left.”
He does have a point, sure. There are at least eight games remaining on the schedule, and against Stanford — the team’s lone blemish thus far — the Trojans failed to sack quarterback Josh Nunes once. The pressure that propelled the Trojans against Cal a week later was sorely missing.
But still, you sense a sort of cautious optimism from a coach who’s witnessed quite a handful of the Trojans’ more decorated defensive line units in school history.
Comparisons are tough to make, but this group carries its fair share of upside.
“They’re getting better every time,” said Orgeron. “But we have to stay hungry. We have to work very hard, stay humble and pay attention to details. Because if not, we won’t play very well and we have to be at our best every game.”
Right now, he has them doing that.
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