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Monday, March 4, 2013
Spring preview: USC defense

By Johnny Curren

With Clancy Pendergast set to unveil an attacking defense that will run primarily out of a new 5-2 base look, more than a few eyes are sure to be focused squarely on this side of the ball this spring. With that in mind, here’s a possible look at how the players on the current Trojans roster just might fit, as practice gets under way on Tuesday.

Defensive line
Ryan Nassib
Leonard Williams made a huge splash as a freshman and will figure prominently into USC's new defensive front.
With five athletes now at his disposal in a typical defensive alignment, there isn’t a more giddy member of the Trojans staff than defensive line coach Ed Orgeron. To be certain, it will be particularly interesting to see just who emerges at the new spots along the line. Leonard Williams is back after a stellar 2012 campaign that saw him come away with Freshman All-American honors, and he’ll almost certainly figure in as a starter at one of the two defensive tackle spots on the outside of the interior of the line (potentially referred to as defensive ends in Pendergast’s system). On the other side, George Uko looks primed for a big redshirt junior year after settling in as one of this group’s most consistent performers last season. And you can be sure that J.R. Tavai and Greg Townsend Jr. will also factor heavily into the rotation. And then there’s star freshman Kenny Bigelow, who is already enrolled in school. Standing 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds, he has the potential to step right in and make an immediate impact. He will more than likely play in a reserve capacity behind Uko and Williams but could conceivably line up at nose tackle as well, especially if he continues to add weight to his impressive frame. When it comes to the here and now, there isn’t a more natural fit at nose than 6-1, 315 pound Antwaun Woods. A starter through USC’s first four games last fall, he was ultimately supplanted atop the depth chart. But with a new scheme requiring a disruptive presence in the middle with a skill set matching his, the Woodland Hills (Calif.) Taft product finds himself with a golden opportunity. Cody Temple might also line up here, but his status this spring is uncertain as he continues to recover from ankle surgery. Christian Heyward -- another possible contributor either at nose or tackle/end -- was not on the most recent team roster released by the school.

Outside linebacker
Morgan Breslin made a name for himself as a prolific pass rusher after racking up 13 sacks this past season, and his talents should translate over well to one of the new outside linebacker positions. This also just might be the spot where we see redshirt senior Devon Kennard, who had to sit out last fall after suffering a pectoral injury during offseason workouts. Having played at defensive end and linebacker in his time on campus, he has the athleticism and speed that will fit in nicely at the spot. Other likely contributors here who could push for playing time this spring are Kevin Greene, Jabari Ruffin, Scott Starr and Charles Burks.

Inside linebacker
Mike Ekeler takes over as the new linebackers coach, and he inherits a couple of good ones on the inside in Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson. Lining up as the starters throughout the winter passing sessions, there’s every reason to believe that’s exactly how it will stay when camp opens up. Pullard, who was second on the team last year with 107 tackles, has developed into a team leader this offseason and could be gearing up for an extremely productive spring. The third primary starter at linebacker in 2012, Dion Bailey, is rumored to be making a switch to the defensive backfield. Meanwhile, Anthony Sarao is another inside linebacker who stood out at times last fall with steady play, and there’s every reason to believe that we’ll be seeing more of him in 2013. Will Andrew, Marquis Simmons and Simione Vehikite will also add to the Trojans’ depth here.

With the loss of both of the team’s starting safeties from last year’s squad, the competition here during spring practice will go a long way in determining who emerges atop the depth chart in the fall. In the winter, it was Josh Shaw who received the most reps at free safety during the team’s passing sessions. Having spent the majority of the 2012 season at cornerback, he can certainly get the job done in coverage, but it’s his strong tackling skills that figure to be better utilized at safety. Demetrius Wright is a heady veteran with experience who could also compete for time here, as well as at strong safety. Speaking of strong safety, that’s certainly where Bailey figures into the mix of things, but he’ll have to wait until the fall to show what he can do as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. Senior Gerald Bowman might also be ready to earn more playing time, and the big name to watch is early entrant freshman Su’a Cravens. At 6-3 and 215 pounds, the highly touted athlete shined at times this winter during team workouts, neither looking nor playing like a first-year performer.

With Nickell Robey’s early departure to the NFL and Shaw’s likely move back to safety, the Trojans could be without both of the team’s primary starters at cornerback from the 2012 team. Redshirt senior Torin Harris has the most experience of the group, and he’s certainly had his big-play moments as a Trojan, but he’ll need to show that he can perform on a more consistent basis this spring. Sophomore Kevon Seymour is a lightning-quick cover man who earned valuable playing time as a freshman on special teams as well as in a reserve role at corner. In terms of raw talent, he might be the most likely to make a move up the depth chart. Anthony Brown is another cornerback with starting experience who could certainly factor in, as could Devian Shelton, Ryan Henderson and Ryan Dillard. The cornerbacks likely to receive the most interest this spring, however, just might be Class of 2013 freshmen Leon McQuay III and Chris Hawkins – both already on campus and ready to compete. McQuay, in particular, has made a name for himself after initially coming in as a safety. Of course, if the competition at cornerback doesn’t ultimately produce two players that Kiffin and Co. are completely comfortable with from this group, there’s certainly the chance that Shaw could find himself here once again.