The 2013 USC defense will look quite different than it did a season ago, and that’s the whole point: to improve upon a forgettable performance and, eventually, do just that-—forget it.
Though an overhaul of sorts has already been implemented, familiar faces will comprise its front seven, which will undoubtedly be the strength of the defense.
The scheme might be different, but six of the seven faces are the same on USC’s front seven, as is their goal—improvement. Drastic improvement.
USC ranked 71st nationally in run defense, 53rd in passing defense and 61st overall in yards allowed per game in 2012, leaving this year’s unit with much to improve upon.
After the Trojans lost five of their last six games to finish the season with a record of 7-6, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin departed and became the defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys, while linebackers coach Scottie Hazelton left for a job as defensive coordinator at the University of Nevada.
Clancy Pendergast was hired from California to replace the elder Kiffin, while Mike Ekeler was hired from Indiana University to replace Hazelton. Immediately after his hiring, excitement began to build within the program for Pendergast’s 5-2 defensive scheme, which sometimes places five defenders on the defensive line, and features two linebackers instead of the usual three.
“He had a great interview,” said assistant head coach Ed Orgeron, who coaches the defensive line. “He’s playing five different linemen, and I get to coach all of them. It’s awesome.”
The players are also excited for the increased opportunities the new system will afford them to make big plays in opposing backfields.
“[The new system] has re-energized our defense, and we’re bringing the kind of energy you should bring on defense at USC,” said redshirt senior defensive end Devon Kennard.
Though Pendergast’s schemes are designed to ignite the USC defense, they can also spark the Trojans’ offense.
“Big plays keep the fire lit and make the offense even better,” redshirt junior linebacker Hayes Pullard said. “It makes our offense excited when we can get them the ball, and it gets their fire lit too.”
The five-man front has allowed multiple players to move back to positions of comfort, both on and off the line. Kennard and senior Morgan Breslin are among the primary benefactors, as they are set to become the primary pass rushers on the edges of the line.
Though he was a virtual unknown upon transferring to USC from Diablo Valley Junior College, Breslin was one of the few positive surprises of 2012. He had 13 sacks last season, good for a tie for third in the nation, after beginning the season as a backup.
Kennard missed all of last season because of a torn pectoral muscle, but is still the most experienced lineman of the five, and has impressed Kiffin so far.
“I think so,” Kiffin said when asked if Kennard has benefitted the most from the move to the 5-2. “It’s his natural position. We’re pretty fortunate we changed to a scheme that fits our personnel. A lot of times it takes a year or two in recruiting to match the guys [to a new system], and because of Morgan and Devon, it’s a really good fit.”
The position change also means both will be standing before the snap rather than crouched in a three-point stance, bettering their vision of the field and keeping opponents guessing whether they’ll be penetrating the backfield or dropping back into coverage.
The three men in the middle, the defensive tackles, are sophomore Leonard Williams, redshirt sophomore Antwaun Woods and senior George Uko.
Williams was named Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year after starting nine games and finishing with 13.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. A highly touted recruit coming out of Florida, Williams has done little to dispel the notion that he’ll be anchoring an NFL defensive line down the road.
“He’s a physical specimen and he works hard,” Kennard said. “When you combine [those two factors], the sky’s the limit on what he can do.”
Uko and Woods fly under the radar in comparison, but Uko earns praise for his raw skills, handwork and intensity, while Woods is the biggest player (315 lbs.) on the defense and will be relied upon heavily as a run stopper up the middle.
The linebacker corps will have to adjust to life without one of its core members from the past two seasons; last year’s strong side linebacker, junior Dion Bailey, is now at safety. The two starters remaining, Pullard and junior Lamar Dawson, both expressed that while they’ll miss having Bailey at their side, his move back to his natural position is for the better.
“I keep peeking in the back and saying ‘I see you back there,’ and [Bailey] still comes up a lot to help,” Pullard said. “If a guy gets past me, I know Dion will always have my back.”
As the middle linebacker, Pullard relays the play call from the sideline, and should emerge as the de facto defensive leader and captain as fall camp progresses.
Dawson struggled at times to wrap up tacklers last fall, and acknowledged that Bailey’s move will put even more pressure on him to make stops in the open field. With junior Anthony Sarao pushing him for playing time, Dawson has little margin for error in his transition with the new defense.
The adjustment to the system will have its inevitable hiccups, but the coaching staff is confident that improved results from last season’s unit will come quickly.
“There will be some things throughout the season we’ll have to fix because we haven’t played [the 5-2] before,” Orgeron said. “But it seems like we were built for it.”
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