- Erik McKinney, ESPN Staff Writer
While much of the talk after the past two practices has focused on Tre Madden's move to tailback, just as much could be said about one of the guys primarily responsible for shutting him down. After being demoted to the second team for Tuesday's practice after a subpar effort last weekend, George Uko has responded in a big way, drawing praise from head coach Lane Kiffin for his outstanding play.
"He has really responded," Kiffin said of Uko and the wrist slap he received. "He had a dominant practice on Tuesday and he is doing a great job."
The Trojans graduated both interior defensive linemen from last year's team and it's no secret that much of the responsibility inside will fall on Uko's shoulders as the starting defensive tackle. That's something that is just fine with the 6-foot-3, 285-pound redshirt sophomore.
"I love being the guy," he said. "I love being the three-technique. It's one of the most important positions on the defense. All the great inside guys play the three-technique."
Uko listed standouts such as Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Warren Sapp and Jurrell Casey as players who have starred at his spot. Kiffin didn't shy away from throwing out a few adjectives describing Uko that could eventually put him in that class.
"He's a perfect three-technique," Kiffin said. "He's powerful, quick, explosive, he can run long, he can play the run and he can rush the passer. The sky is the limit for him."
Veteran players on the outside seem to be buying in as well. Uko said he has been building chemistry with senior defensive end Wes Horton, who lines up to his outside.
"I feel like we're developing a real good bond," Uko said. "He's starting to trust me and feel like, okay, this is the guy who's going to be leading me. Because I make all the calls and because of where I'm at, I give him the call, the rush, the games. He's really starting to trust me and see that I'm growing up."
• Thursday injury report: Khaled Holmes (calf), Buck Allen (hamstring), George Farmer (hamstring), Xavier Grimble (toe) and Junior Pomee (family issue) did not practice. Jesse Scroggins (hip), Marquis Simmons (shoulder), Dion Bailey (hamstring) and Randall Telfer (hamstring) were all limited. Telfer came out toward the end of the day. Kiffin believes Holmes could be back for Saturday's scrimmage.
• Kiffin said he was pleased by the effort on spring ball Day 5: "I thought the guys practiced pretty physically today, especially during the run drills."
• T.J. McDonald turned in another terrific performance, highlighted by a string of three consecutive tackles during team work. Kiffin said McDonald had a good first week of spring, but "is having a great second week." During one-on-ones, McDonald stuck with Marqise Lee on a deep route and knocked the ball away with a well-timed leap. Later, he came back during seven-on-seven work to pull an interception away from Telfer on a ball thrown by Matt Barkley.
• Tre Madden again stood out as a running back. He looks very natural at the spot.
Kiffin said of Madden: "Really good again. Really good forward lean, really good feet. Obviously he has a long ways to go, but he's an exciting prospect to have there, giving us some size that we really want to have."
Kiffin stressed that learning the system and ball control will be the two most important issues for Madden moving forward. Kiffin also didn't shy away from talk of possibly incorporating Madden into the Wildcat package.
"He throws the ball really well," Kiffin said. "That is a potential."
• The secondary received plenty of praise from Kiffin, as the entire group has really stepped up its play from last season. McDonald has led the way, but Nickell Robey has been terrific, as have Jawanza Starling and Isiah Wiley.
"The secondary is playing much better," Kiffin said. "It's playing the best it's been since we've been here."
• Kiffin said the gap is closing between the offense and defense, then stopped himself and commented on the fact that he had never used that phrase -- "the gap is closing" -- before. He went on to say that the chasm that existed between offense and defense, with the defense dominating early on, has narrowed, although that side of the ball still remains slightly ahead.
• In anticipation of Saturday's scrimmage, Kiffin said he doesn't expect to see much of Barkley, and that he will be looking to see how the backup quarterbacks, Max Wittek and Cody Kessler, take command of the huddle and limit turnovers.
• There were several highlight plays during the one-on-one portion of Thursday's practice. Victor Blackwell made a terrific catch along the sideline against Robey, corralling a tipped ball and getting both feet in before going to the ground. De'Von Flournoy made a great move against Anthony Brown and got wide open for an easy catch, but Brian Baucham got a measure of revenge by denying Flournoy a catch. The competition between cornerbacks and wide receivers was eventually won by the defense, when Robey knocked away a pass intended for Lee.
• On the other field, linebackers and running backs matched up for several interesting reps. The most noise came when Anthony Sarao blew past Madden for a sack. Madden has been hearing from his former fellow linebacker all week about his move to the offensive backfield and the defenders had no problem letting him know about Sarao getting past him. The linebackers had something else to shout about later on, when Hayes Pullard beat D.J. Morgan to win the day for his group.
• Starling made a terrific play early when he read a quick pass from Barkley and broke on it, intercepting the ball easily near the line of scrimmage.
• Wittek found a rhythm with former high school teammate Blackwell on Thursday, connecting for three touchdowns and several other completions.
• Drew McAllister was playing with a cast on his hand after injuring it on Tuesday. He nearly had two interceptions on the day and likely would have grabbed both with two good hands.
• There were plenty of visitors at Thursday's practice, as Long Beach Poly brought up what looked to be much of its varsity, junior varsity and freshmen teams. Players from Loyola High School were also in attendance. USC cornerback target Chris Hawkins (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif./Rancho Cucamonga) made it out for his second practice this week.
• The Trojans will practice again Saturday morning at the Coliseum.