- Erik McKinney, ESPN Staff Writer
LOS ANGELES -- Nose tackle Antwaun Woods has been perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the spring for USC coaches. The redshirt freshman was an afterthought last year, as poor conditioning rendered him incapable of making an impact during his first fall. That he would be able to turn himself around in one offseason to the point where he is challenging for a starting spot as spring ball comes to a close has been a shock to most onlookers.
Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron raises his eyebrows when Woods is mentioned, as if words can’t convey what a difference there is in the Woods of eight months ago compared to the one that lines up for him now.
“He’s come along,” Orgeron said. “Last fall there was no way he was ready to play. He was falling over and couldn’t finish a sprint. Now you look at him -- he’s a part of the program and he has a long ways to go -- but I’m really happy about him.”
Lane Kiffin made several comments about free agency hitting the college ranks when the NCAA allowed juniors and seniors to transfer in the wake of sanctions leveled against the Trojans two summers ago. This time, it could be USC that benefits.
“It’s like getting a free agent,” Orgeron said of Woods’ turnaround. “It’s huge. We did not know with the condition he was in, how well he was going to be able to play in a hurry. Now he’s come along to where we feel like we can play. Mentally, maturity, physically, weight-wise, technique-wise, the speed of the game. Everything. When you lose weight and become more familiar with playing, you get more confidence in yourself.”
Woods acknowledges that he wasn’t ready to play as a true freshman. He said the extra academic work during his senior year in high school prevented him from preparing himself physically for the next level. During his first year on the sideline, Woods worked to familiarize himself with the system, because he understood how quickly he would be asked to play. He also was growing a little tired of entering the Coliseum and leaving with a clean uniform.
“From being recruited and redshirting last year, I’ve been in the stadium just watching and seeing the excitement of my teammates,” Woods said. “Just the thought of knowing that I’m going to be able to play or start in the Coliseum is pushing me. Knowing that my family will be able to watch me there or see me play on TV just pushes me harder and harder to do what I can to get out there.”
“Everybody is saying that will be a grey area because Tupou and Juicy (Harris) left,” Woods said of the interior of the line. “But I use that as motivation to push myself and show everybody that’s not going to be a problem. I’m working hard to do what I can.”
Over the past few weeks, Woods has pushed into regular rotation with the first unit, and started there last Saturday, lining up next to Uko. And while that again may be a surprise to some, it’s simply part of the plan, according to Woods.
“Me and George have been close since about eighth or ninth grade from going to football camps together,” Woods said. “When we both started getting recruited, we made a deal to come to USC and play together. Knowing that the older guys are gone and it’s just us. Me, him and J.R. are like a family. We help each other out and push each other every day.”
• The injury report lightened a bit on Tuesday, although cornerback Ryan Henderson, linebackers Dallas Kelley and Marquis Simmons and tight end Randall Telfer remained out. Wide receiver George Farmer continues to be more active in practices, but is not fully back yet. Kiffin said he hopes Farmer will be fully participating on Thursday.
• There is no date set yet for Tre Madden’s surgery. Madden tore a ligament in his knee late last week. It was a non-contact injury and Madden will be out for the 2012 season.
• Kiffin shrugged off any concerns about limiting tackling this spring. He said there is no set play for how they will tackle the tackling issue this fall, but he doesn’t expect many problems to arise.
“I think we’ll be in a little different place than we were one year ago because there’s so much experience returning on defense,” Kiffin said. “We do know what guys are doing. We’ll still do the individual stuff, which has helped us -- individual tackling the backups. I think we’ll be in a little better place with the starters coming back.”
• The cornerbacks and wide receivers put on a show during one-on-one drills on Tuesday. Isiah Wiley led things off with a terrific pass breakup against Lee. De’Von Flournoy showed he isn’t bothered much by the high-ankle sprain he suffered when he put a double move on Anthony Brown and got wide open in the end zone. Lee and Robey had a terrific matchup, as Robey stuck with the receiver through a double move, but was beat on a back shoulder throw that Lee hauled in over Robey. Victor Blackwell finished the drill by racing past Brown and pulling in a fingertip grab in the back of the end zone, as he tapped both feet before sprawling out of bounds.
• Brown got a measure of revenge during the two-minute drills, when he raced deep down the field and leapt to knock away a pass down the sideline on a third down play.
• Tony Burnett, Devon Kennard and Wes Horton all registered sacks on the day. Hayes Pullard came up with two big tackles for loss on running plays. The defense also forced three consecutive turnovers, as Jawanza Starling picked off a Matt Barkley pass when there was miscommunication between Barkley and the receiver, Brown caught a Max Wittek pass that was tipped by Xavier Grimble, and Demetrius Wright forced a fumble against Flournoy just before the whistle blew the play dead.
• Buck Allen continued to make his presence felt in the backfield with a few nice runs. Kiffin said he felt Allen may not have been in the right frame of mind during Saturday’s practice, as he wasn’t completely mentally prepared to go the full practice. Kiffin said that wasn’t the case on Tuesday.
• Wright and Woods went with the first unit on Tuesday, and Brown served as the first-team nickel back.
• Joshua Shaw said he expects the NCAA to rule on his hardship waiver this Thursday. He and Kiffin are hopeful that the waiver will be granted and Shaw will receive immediate eligibility.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘confident,’” Kiffin said when asked if he felt the waiver would be upheld. “Obviously we would expect it to be granted, knowing the situation with his family and why he can back.”
• 2015 quarterback David Sills (Elkton, Md./Eastern Christian Academy) was in attendance at USC’s practice on Tuesday. Sills will visit USC through the week, and will be joined Thursday by fellow USC commit, 2013 defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow.