- Erik McKinney, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- Just like Pete Carroll couldn’t control his fondness for the defense, Lane Kiffin hasn’t been shy about siding with the offense during his coaching tenure. But through three spring practices, it’s the other side of the ball that has caught Kiffin’s eye.
“Our defense is going to be better,” Kiffin said of what he will take away from the first week of spring ball. “Just watching them, they have a good look about themselves. They’re practicing as hard as they’ve practiced since we’ve been here. They’re holding each other accountable. I’m excited about their development.”
Kiffin heaped praise upon defensive end Wes Horton and cornerback Nickell Robey following Saturday’s practice. Both were responsible for turnovers, as Horton batted a pass in the air and came down with an interception, while Robey chased a ball carrier deep into the secondary and forced a fumble.
“I think Wes has pretty much dominated,” Kiffin said. “He looks faster and he’s doing a great job with his hands.”
Kiffin said the coaches have moved Horton to the right side of the line--a position vacated by Nick Perry -- in an attempt to produce more “explosive plays” from the quarterback’s blind side. Kiffin’s praise for Robey is nothing unusual, as he became an impact player during his first fall camp. Robey earned the MVP nod from Kiffin after day three.
“Even though we didn’t throw at him most of the day,” Kiffin said in awarding Robey the honor. “He’s having a silent, great camp…making another explosive play there with the turnover.”
As for what Kiffin is looking for from his defensive charges, he is thinking back to the 2003 season, when the Trojans registered 55 sacks, forced 42 turnovers and led the nation in rushing defense.
“I hope we can be an elite defense and we should be,” Kiffin said. “We have great players and great schemes. Now we have to go to that next level of being a suffocating defense.”
Saturday practice notes
• The injury list remained the same from Thursday, then added Khaled Holmes, who left practice early due to a strained calf. Kiffin said they expect many of the players with nagging injuries to take advantage of the week off and return to practice next Tuesday. He chalked up some of the early hamstring injuries to skill guys simply to the increased running and reps due to limited numbers.
• Defensive linemen DeVante Wilson and Christian Heyward participated in individual work.
• More Kiffin on his defense: “I think our defense looks very improved. Even though it’s just practice I feel like they’re playing harder on film, through the snap. And they have a good confidence about themselves.”
• The first day of full pads brought out the hitting, and Tre Madden got things started with a pop on D.J. Morgan. Madden let up slightly and took it easy on Morgan, but that was the first solid hit of spring. Isiah Wiley did no such favors for Curtis McNeal during team drills. McNeal was set to haul in a pass in the flat, but Wiley closed in a hurry and separated the tailback from the ball.
• Horton and Robey both made big plays on their turnovers. Horton knocked a Matt Barkley pass straight into the air, then managed to find it and bring it in for his first interception at USC. On Robey’s forced fumble, he chased down Morgan, who had broken into the secondary on a nice run, then simply raked it out from behind. Jawanza Starling fell on the loose ball and the defensive sideline went crazy.
• Robey added an interception during 7-on-7 work. The defense should have had several more, but Starling and Anthony Brown both had sure picks slip through their hands.
• Kevin Greene and Greg Townsend Jr. added sacks. Kiffin specifically praised the group of young defensive linemen after practice, saying they have stepped up nicely.
• Through one week, several players have made plenty of noise. Among the starters, the defensive end tandem of Horton and Devon Kennard has been tremendous. Similarly, cornerbacks Robey and Wiley have been very good. There’s no surprise from Robey, but Wiley has been at another level from what we saw during practice last fall. Offensively, Marqise Lee has earned every bit of praise he’s received. He has stepped to the front with Robert Woods out and taken over the passing game. He scored a touchdown on Saturday after catching a short pass and eluding several defenders on his way to the endzone.
• Several backups have also made some noise. Brian Baucham has bounced back from academic ineligibility to author several very good practices. He was in the mix Thursday and Saturday and has made sure to include himself in that cornerback battle. Madden has been easy to spot as well. Dion Bailey was sidelined on Saturday, so Madden was able to take all of the starting reps and didn’t allow for any drop off.
Kiffin said of Madden: “We were very high on Tre coming out. He’s a great athlete and can do a lot of things. As he gets more comfortable, he’s going to continue to develop and be a guy that we want to blitz and drop. He has great ball skills for a defensive player.”
• Kiffin also spoke well of the players battling for the No. 3 receiver spot -- De’Von Flournoy and Victor Blackwell.
“I think both De’Von and Victor are doing extremely well,” Kiffin said. “De’Von knows the offense a little better because of his experience. Victor’s made some pretty big plays down the field. We’re excited about both and we’re going to need them.”
• Quarterback Cody Kessler shared Kiffin’s early thoughts about the defense.
“Our defense is vicious,” Kessler said. “They’re flying around, especially the linebacker position. It’s really deep there.”
Kessler said there is still no set rotation behind Barkley, and the fact that four different centers rotated in when Holmes went out threw something of a wrench in the offensive flow. But Kessler added a highlight to his spring performance, when he hooked up with Flournoy on a nicely-thrown touchdown that landed in the receiver’s hands in the back of the end zone.
22hKevin Gemmell and Erik McKinney