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Thursday, March 6, 2014
Position changes big part of USC success

By Greg Katz

LOS ANGELES -- With spring football launching Tuesday at USC, one of the focal points of Steve Sarkisian’s staff will be the evaluation of players with the option for position changes, which could include player movement from offense to defense or vice versa.

The amount of player position movement in the spring could also have an impact on the position options of the incoming freshman class. A case in point would be the highly anticipated arrival this summer of enormously skilled defensive back/wide receiver Adoree' Jackson (Gardena, Calif./Serra). Jackson, however, might not be the only entering freshman whose position could be decided by what happens this spring.

If you don’t think that correct player evaluation and placement doesn’t make a difference, just look back on the recently concluded career of Devon Kennard, who came to USC as a highly touted defensive end. In his five years at Troy, Kennard seemed to be constantly changing defensive positions and responsibilities.

Devon Kennard
After four years of position changes, Devon Kennard finally found his comfort zone in 2013.
From defensive end as a freshman to a middle linebacker in Monte Kiffin’s system, Kennard seemed like one big underachieving disappointment. In fact, there were even whispers that he was about to join the long list of overhyped prep stars that couldn’t cut it on the collegiate level.

However, it wasn’t until Kiffin resigned after the 2012 season and former Trojans defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast came aboard last spring that Kennard’s career was reborn. As an outside linebacker in Pendergast’s 5-2 system, Kennard finally developed into the player the Trojans once expected and finished 2013 a second-team All-Pac-12 selection who appears headed for a certain NFL career.

Kennard wasn’t the only Trojan last season to flourish under a position change.

Needing to replace former All-Pac-12 center Khaled Holmes after the 2012 season, offensive guard Marcus Martin was moved to center last spring. The rest is history. Martin, who departed early to enter the 2014 NFL draft, used the position switch to become a 2013 first-team All-Pac-12 selection and is considered the top NFL center prospect in the draft by many.

The highly successful coaches at USC have all had that rare ability to envision players being more productive in locations other than in their original position. Hall of Fame coaches John McKay and John Robinson were remarkably good at taking players whose reputations were at one position and converting them to another one.

One of McKay’s most famous player switches was taking a strong-armed quarterback named Hal Bedsole (1961-63) and moving him to wide receiver. Considered big (6-foot-5, 221 pounds) even by today’s standards, “Prince Hal” was so prolific a mismatch for smaller defensive backs that he eventually rode his skills right into consensus All-America recognition and eventual entry into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Another McKay’s switcheroo was taking a San Fernando High quarterback named Anthony Davis (1972-74) and morphing him into a future consensus All-American tailback. Of course McKay had that luxury because he also had an exceptional incoming freshman class in 1970 which included a legendary prep quarterback by the name of Pat Haden, the Trojans current athletic director.

McKay seemed to love taking prep quarterbacks and re-assigning them to new positions. Two other quarterback switches that come to mind are former Pasadena (Calif.) Blair quarterback Charles Phillips (1972-74) and a former San Mateo (Calif.) Serra signal-caller named Lynn Swann (1971-73). Phillips made the successful transition from prep quarterback to All-American safety. while Swann transitioned into one of football’s all-time great wide receivers.

And let’s not forget that McKay passed on to Robinson a former Los Angeles Fremont linebacker/fullback named Ricky Bell (1973-76), who used his linebacker toughness and brute strength to become another USC All-America tailback by his senior season.

Robinson continued the successful position reassignments when he recruited a high school quarterback named Marcus Allen (1978-81) out of San Diego Lincoln, turning Allen briefly into a safety, then into a multi-skilled fullback, and finally into a Heisman Trophy-winning tailback.

During his tenure at Troy, Pete Carroll also was no stranger in finding the proper position for a player or a recruit.

Former Trojans All-America linebacker Matt Grootegoed (2001-2004) might have been arguably the greatest prep football player in Orange County (Calif.) history. A quarterback, running back, and safety at Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei, Grootegoed was a jack-of-all-trades and a near master of them all. However, where would he perform at USC?

Carroll began experimenting with Grootegoed’s diversity and decided “Groots” had to be on defense. He surprised many when he decided to put the undersized Grootegoed (5-11, 215) at linebacker rather than safety, and all the former prep superstar did was return Carroll’s gesture with an All-America and national championship season in 2004.

Successful position changes haven’t been confined to legendary USC coaches.

Successful but beleaguered former Trojans head coach Larry Smith once took a lighting quick quarterback out of Hawthorne (Calif.) named Curtis Conway and turned him into an All-America wide receiver and future NFL performer.

Perhaps the best thing that controversial former head coach Lane Kiffin did was make the critical decision regarding the future position of Marqise Lee. Lee was touted as a potential NFL defensive back prospect coming out of Gardena (Calif.) Serra until Kiffin switched him to offense. All Lee did was become an All-America receiver and the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner.

There have been other position switches that have made a significant cardinal and gold difference.

The Green Bay Packers eventually rewarded John Robinson’s move of former defensive tackle John Michels (1994-95) to offensive tackle with Michels’ first-round selection. And then there were Carroll’s brilliant moves of moving former All-American defensive tackle Shaun Cody (2001-2004) from defensive end and former All-American defensive end Kenechi Udeze (2001-03) from defensive tackle.

So now it’s Sarkisian and his staff’s turn to show their player-evaluating skills. If Trojans history has shown us anything, slotting players into the right positions can be a harbinger of success.