USC Trojans: Anthony Sarao

Here’s a look at some of the major offseason storylines for a USC linebacker corps that, under the direction of a new position coach in Peter Sirmon, performed at a high level this spring as a key piece of the puzzle in defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 multiple-front scheme.

Pullard’s return provides boost in more ways than one

[+] EnlargeHayes Pullard
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergHayes Pullard's decision to return to USC was huge for the Trojans due to both his play and his veteran leadership.
Shortly after Hayes Pullard announced that he would remain at USC for his senior season -- bucking the trend established by many of the other high-profile, draft-eligible players on the roster such as Dion Bailey and George Uko to leave early -- Wilcox referred to the veteran inside linebacker as the staff’s “biggest recruit,” and for good reason. After all, the Trojans not only regained the services of a stellar performer who has paced the defense in tackles in two of the past three seasons, they also held on to a leader who commands a level of respect from his teammates that would have been impossible to replace.

That fact was obvious during spring ball, when Pullard played an important role in making sure each member of the USC defense was on the same page as they acclimated to the new system. Pullard was a captain in 2013 who figures to hold on to that title in 2014. His return bodes well for the Trojans not only when it comes to the immediate success of the team but also in the long term as younger players like sophomore Michael Hutchings -- Pullard’s primary backup -- are afforded the opportunity to continue to benefit from the knowledge Pullard has to pass down for another season.

Can Dawson reclaim the starting spot at WILL?

One of the most tightly contested position battles leading up to the 2013 campaign was at WILL linebacker, with Lamar Dawson and Anthony Sarao duking it out for the right to line up alongside Pullard. Dawson ultimately came out on top, but he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee midway through the season, and it was Sarao who started the final seven games of the season.

Dawson is scheduled to be back in time for fall camp, but with Sarao performing solidly in his stint with the No. 1 unit -- both last fall and into the spring -- if Dawson wants his old job back, he’ll have to fight for it once again. Coming off a serious injury, however, it won’t be easy, particularly when you consider the fact he missed the entire spring -- a time when many of his teammates grew accustomed to the lightning-quick tempo of each practice under the new regime. And with Sarao having now proven himself to a certain extent, there’s reason to believe that Dawson, who has shined at times but underwhelmed at others, will need to come back in top form.

Competition at SAM one to watch

The competition between Dawson and Sarao at the WILL spot won’t be the only head-to-head duel to keep an eye on in fall camp. In fact, after what both Jabari Ruffin and Quinton Powell showed this spring, the battle at SAM linebacker has the potential to develop into one of the biggest storylines of fall camp.

Ruffin, a third-year sophomore, and Powell, a sophomore, each stood out throughout the recent March and April practice sessions, providing more than enough evidence to suggest this position should be in good hands, regardless of which player is in there at any given time. Both candidates are tremendous athletes who are strong at the line of scrimmage as well as in coverage, and they possess the size and length head coach Steve Sarkisian has said he covets at the SAM position.

Powell, who plays with a ton of energy, began the spring as the starter, but by the later stages of camp it was the rangy Ruffin who was going with the No. 1 group. Still, there certainly isn’t a lot separating these two, and when the post-spring depth chart was released, both were listed on top with the trademark “OR” designation sitting between their names, meaning this competition is still very much ongoing. It figures to remain that way through fall camp, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both of the up-and-comers play quite a bit in the fall.

Newcomers ready to join the fray

While USC possesses a solid collection of talent up and down the two-deep at linebacker, with the scholarship restrictions put in place due to NCAA sanctions the Trojans still don’t have what you’d consider ideal depth just yet. That said, a number of outside linebacker/defensive end types are set to arrive on campus this summer who will help remedy that issue, and it will be interesting to see if any are capable of jumping right into the mix.

Harbor City (Calif.) Narbonne’s Uchenna Nwosu is a former safety with 6-foot-3, 210-pound size who looks tailor made for the SAM linebacker position, although he’s athletic and versatile enough that he could even conceivably play on the inside. Olajuwon Tucker, from local powerhouse Gardena (Calif.) Serra, is another player who looks like a natural fit at SAM. Standing 6-3 and 220 pounds, he has the ability to cover a tremendous amount of ground in coverage, and he’s just as strong coming off the edge after the quarterback.

Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco’s Malik Dorton and Boise Timberline’s Don Hill, an early entrant who sat out spring ball with an Achilles' injury, are two more promising additions who could certainly factor in at SAM linebacker, although their larger frames suggest they might be better suited on the opposite side at rush end.

2013 review: USC defense

December, 24, 2013
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Determined to find a greater level of success against those uptempo, spread offenses that have shredded USC in recent years, Clancy Pendergast was brought in this past offseason by Lane Kiffin to replace his father, Monte Kiffin, as the team’s defensive coordinator. Installing a vastly different defense, both in terms of look and philosophy, this unit showed tremendous improvement, ranking No. 1 in the Pac-12 in passing defense and No. 2 in rushing defense.

Defensive line

A fast and attacking bunch, the Trojans defensive line spearheaded a defense that compiled an impressive 91 tackles for loss, including 35 sacks.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Williams
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesSophomore defensive end Leonard Williams had an All-American season.
Headlining the group was defensive end Leonard Williams. A 6-foot-5 sophomore with off-the-charts physical tools, he had arguably the best season of any Trojan, ranking No. 2 on the team with 74 tackles, including 13.5 for a loss, on his way to garnering ESPN.com First Team All-American honors.

Fourth-year junior George Uko lined up opposite Williams at the other end spot, compiling 36 tackles and five sacks of his own, and Antwaun Woods did a solid job at nose tackle when the Trojans went to their 5-2 look. He also took reps at end on occasion.

The outside linebackers emerged as a key piece of the puzzle in the new defensive scheme, with SAM linebacker Devon Kennard and Predator linebacker Morgan Breslin providing steady pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Kennard, who has played everywhere from middle linebacker to defensive end in his career, finally found his niche standing up on the outside, pacing the Trojans with nine sacks. Breslin, who made a huge impact in 2012 as a junior college transfer, had his season cut short because of a hip injury, though he still managed to record 4.5 sacks in five games. Sliding into the lineup for Breslin midway through the season was J.R. Tavai, who had spent the entirety of his career on the interior. An exceptional athlete with unique football instincts, his standout play allowed the defense to continue on its forward path without a hitch.

Jabari Ruffin, Marquis Simmons, Scott Starr and Kevin Greene were others who played at outside linebacker.

Inside linebackers

Under the direction of first-year coach Mike Ekeler, the inside linebackers set the tone as a group that played with a high level of physicality, with fourth-year junior MIKE linebacker Hayes Pullard serving as the leader. Racking up 14 tackles against UCLA, he finished with a team-best 94 stops.

After a spirited competition with sophomore Anthony Sarao in the spring, junior Lamar Dawson emerged as the starter at WILL linebacker, recording 35 tackles before going down with a torn ACL during an October practice. With Dawson sidelined, Sarao stepped in and looked right at home, showcasing a nonstop motor and a nose for the ball.

Michael Hutchings and Quinton Powell are freshman reserves who figure to factor heavily into the equation down the line.

Secondary

It was an up-and-down season for a secondary that struggled at times in coverage, particularly at cornerback. They did end on a high note, helping to corral Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr and the nation’s No. 1 passing attack in the Trojans' 45-20 Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl victory.

[+] Enlarge Josh Shaw
Jaime Valdez/USA TODAY SportsJosh Shaw, a natural safety, responded well at cornerback, often covering a team's top receiver.
Kevon Seymour was one of the primary starters at cornerback. An athletic-looking sophomore who arrived at USC in 2012 with plenty of hype, he was victimized at times this year by opposing offenses, but he certainly finished up strong in the bowl matchup, collecting a team-best seven tackles on his way to earning defensive outperformer of the game honors.

With Torin Harris and a hobbled Anthony Brown unable to provide stability in starting opportunities, Josh Shaw, a natural safety, found himself sitting atop the depth chart at the opposite cornerback spot for the second consecutive season. Commonly pitted against the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver, he did a nice job of containing elite pass-catchers such as Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks and Colorado’s Paul Richardson, finishing up with four interceptions to go along with 67 stops.

Ryan Henderson, Ryan Dillard and Devian Shelton also saw brief time at cornerback.

While the situation was somewhat muddled at cornerback during the early stages, it immediately became apparent that the Trojans had a wealth of talent at safety. Fourth-year junior Dion Bailey, who made the switch from linebacker to safety, more than proved himself at nickelback. Announcing Monday that he will forgo his senior season to enter this May’s NFL draft, he paced the Trojans with five interceptions.

With Shaw settling in at cornerback, senior Demetrius Wright was the primary starter at free safety. Having been buried on the depth chart for much of his career, he stepped into his new role and was solid. At strong safety, the impact of freshman Su’a Cravens was a revelation. One of those rare playmakers who only comes around so often, he played more like a seasoned veteran than a green, first-year performer, and there’s no doubt that he has a bright future.

Another freshman, Leon McQuay III, also earned valuable playing time. He also looks primed for a big 2014 campaign. Senior Gerald Bowman played sparingly early, but was ultimately sidelined with a shoulder injury and will be back next season after redshirting.

Trojans hitting stride at right time

November, 24, 2013
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The Trojans arrived home in Los Angeles on Sunday morning in a good position.

Coming off a satisfying 49-27 victory over Colorado, USC extended its win streak to five games and an overall 6-1 record under interim coach Ed Orgeron. It might not have been enough to get the Trojans into the Pac-12 title game -- ASU clinched the berth from the south on Saturday night -- but that bit of news will do little to dampen the enthusiasm of the players and coaches.

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiBuck Allen rushed for 145 yards and three touchdowns in the Trojans' win over Colorado.
There is too much else to celebrate about what this team has accomplished to worry about the title game. Yes, it would have been nice for the program, especially considering the Trojans have yet to play in the game as it enters its third year in existence. But to focus solely on the title game would be a disservice to everything else that has gone on with this program over the last seven weeks, a process that has seen the team continue to improve to the point where they are playing their best football of the year at a time when the Bruins come to the Coliseum.

Not only do the Trojans have a chance to put the finishing touches on an amazing in-season turnaround with a victory over UCLA, they also have a chance to right a painful memory from last year. In their first season under coach Jim Mora, the Bruins got the upper hand in 2012 with a 38-28 victory in the Rose Bowl, a win that was all the more notable considering USC had beaten UCLA 50-0 the previous year.

The Bruins have tried to use the momentum from last year to lay claim to ownership of Los Angeles, on the field and on the recruiting trail. The slow start to the USC season appeared to give credence to those efforts, all while UCLA got a big road win over Nebraska and had high-profile stars such as Brett Hundley and Anthony Barr.

Then came the coaching switch for USC and tides of change have swung local momentum back in favor of the Trojans. While USC has been thriving under Orgeron, the Bruins are 3-3 in their last six games. While the Bruins were once ranked in the top 10 and the Trojans were unranked, the two teams now stand right next to each other in the rankings at No. 22 (UCLA) and 23 (USC).

The USC players are certainly going to want revenge for last year. Trojans safety Dion Bailey said in the locker room following the Colorado game that he and his teammates needed to “remind the Bruins” of who runs the town. That bit of chatter about ownership rights of the city is always part of this rivalry so that’s nothing new, but it doesn't figure to be the overriding storyline of this game.

The ongoing saga of Orgeron and his pursuit of the full-time USC job will dominate the discussions leading up to Saturday night, but what shouldn't get lost in the shuffle is the fact his team is playing well right now, as good as he could have hoped for in such an important matchup.

USC has a quarterback in Cody Kessler who has thrown five touchdowns and no interceptions in his last three games while growing into a clear leader of the offense. The running game has received a huge boost from the play of Buck Allen, with his nine rushing touchdowns in the last four games and the splash of explosiveness he adds on the ground. There is also the thought in opponents' minds now of a 260-pound fullback in Soma Vainuku who can move pretty well, too.

On the outside there is still the reality that Marqise Lee is bothered by injuries but Nelson Agholor has stepped up to help pick up some of the slack. Lee would love to be back on the field against UCLA to help make up for 2012 in what will likely be his final home game at the Coliseum. At tight end, Xavier Grimble showed on Saturday what can happen when the tight ends are healthy and utilized the right way as he led the team with six catches.

The development of the offensive line has to be considered one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. It’s no accident when a team has four different running backs go for over 100 yards in a game, at some point the line is doing something right.

On defense, the USC front seven is starting to get recognition as one of the best units in college football. Leonard Williams is playing like an All-American and Devon Kennard isn’t far behind. It makes it all the more impressive to think the Trojans are doing this lately without leading sacker Morgan Breslin, primarily due to the fine play of J.R. Tavai.

There has been the dependable leadership from Hayes Pullard while Anthony Sarao stepped in for an injured Lamar Dawson without missing a beat. And what was once the biggest weakness on the team, the secondary play and coverage at the corner spot, has been stabilized by the physical presence of Josh Shaw while Bailey has been a playmaker at safety.

On top of all that, kicker Andre Heidari battled through his job being put up for grabs to nail the biggest kick of his career in the win over Stanford.

Those are a lot of positives for the Trojans, players who are rising up and playing well, and by no means are these the only players getting it done. Orgeron has provided substance to the loose atmosphere he has fostered with the Trojans and now he and his team have a chance to finish this magnificent regular season run in style.

Sarao’s chance to shine

November, 22, 2013
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Back in the spring, the performance of Anthony Sarao was one of the major talking points of the March and April workouts. Splitting time with Lamar Dawson in a heated competition at WILL linebacker, he was more than holding his own. In fact, by all indications, he was on the verge of a potential breakout campaign.

Once the 2013 season got under way, however, Sarao was noticeably missing, relegated to the sideline as Dawson ran exclusively with the first-team defense.

But rather than dwelling on the situation, the third-year sophomore chose instead to hunker down and make the most out of the hand that he was dealt.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Sarao
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC LB Anthony Sarao recorded a team-high 12 tackles in the win over No. 4 Stanford, and he says he can keep getting better.
“After spring ball I had a lot of buzz around me, and when the games started and I wasn’t really playing, in the back of my head I was kind of confused,” said the 6-foot, 215-pound Sarao. “But to be honest, it just made me hungrier. It gave me extra motivation to prepare like I was a starter.”

Fast-forward to the present, and it’s evident now that Sarao’s drive and level-headed outlook served him well. Stepping in when Dawson went down with a season-ending knee injury just prior to USC’s Oct. 26 matchup with Utah, he has taken advantage of the opportunity, making a name for himself with his energetic, yet steady, brand of play.

“I’m just so hungry to get to that ball. When I see it, I have to get there,” said Sarao, who has 29 tackles this season. “I’ve been like that since I was little. I’m always around the ball.”

And it was just last weekend -- in the Trojans’ dramatic victory over No. 4 Stanford -- when Sarao had his best outing yet. Pacing the team with a career-high 12 stops in addition to one forced fumble, he led a strong effort by an inspired defensive group that held the Cardinal to a season-low 17 points, and their prolific ground game to a modest 210 yards.

“It definitely felt good … coming in and watching films and seeing how I played, but really, I was more happy about how the entire defense played,” Sarao said. “I’ll definitely remember the way we played in that game for the rest of my life.”

For Sarao, the win was especially gratifying on another level. Having given a verbal pledge to Stanford in 2010 during his junior year at Absecon (N.J.) Holy Spirit, he flipped to USC almost a year later due in part to the departure of head coach Jim Harbaugh, as well as some key members of his staff, to the San Francisco 49ers. That plus an eye-opening official visit to the Trojans campus late in the recruiting process sealed the deal.

With some familiar faces across the line this past Saturday, Sarao’s competitive spirit was peaked.

“When I got on the field, and I saw those colors, and I saw some of the players that I know, and some of the coaches that I know too, it gave me a little more juice,” Sarao said. “When it was the fourth quarter, during grind time, it was definitely in my head.”

And now, having come up with what was undoubtedly the most impressive game of his Trojans career, Sarao admits he’s more confident than ever.

Still, in his mind at least, he has a whole lot more to prove -- and he’s determined to do just that.

“This is definitely a golden opportunity, just to be able to step in and play this big of a role,” Sarao said. “I just thank Coach [Ed Orgeron] and the entire coaching staff for this chance. I’m really trying to show them more every game -- that I’m getting better and that they can really trust me to solidify the spot.”

3 up, 3 down: USC 20, Stanford 17

November, 17, 2013
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LOS ANGELES -- A look at the positives and negatives from USC’s thrilling 20-17 victory over No. 4 Stanford on Saturday.

Three up
1. Andre Heidari
Having nearly lost his kicking job earlier in the season and having a less-than-memorable outing last weekend against California, Heidari’s fortunes appeared to be spiraling downward when his PAT attempt sailed wide right in the first quarter against Stanford. To his credit, however, he responded valiantly, hitting a key 23-yard field goal in the second quarter, before ultimately nailing a dramatic 47-yard game-winner, completing his transformation from goat to hero, all in one night.

2. USC defense
The Trojans' defense certainly rose to the challenge in this one, limiting the Cardinal to a season-low 17 points. A fast and swarming bunch that was paced by linebacker Anthony Sarao and his 12 tackles. The group showed a ton of heart and determination late, turning back, time and time again, a Stanford offense noted for its physical brand of play at the line of scrimmage. The performance of the safeties was particularly stellar down the stretch, with Dion Bailey and Su’a Cravens each recording clutch interceptions in the fourth quarter.

3. USC team resolve
The Trojans had every opportunity to let the game slip away, but even when their backs were against the wall, they simply refused to give in. That's a credit to the man who has instilled new life into the program, interim coach Ed Orgeron. In addition to the two interceptions by the defense, Chad Wheeler’s momentum-turning blocked field goal and a hobbled Marqise Lee’s improbable 13-yard reception on 4th-and-2 were plays indicative of a team that possesses a fierce will to win. It’s a mindset that has reached new heights under the direction of Orgeron, and it’s a big reason why he just might be USC athletic director Pat Haden’s best choice as the Trojans' next full-time coach. The gritty, never-say-die effort of USC quarterback Cody Kessler -- who completed 25-of-37 passes for 288 yards and one touchdown -- also deserves special mention.

Three down
1. USC run game
Averaging 185.9 rushing yards per game entering Saturday's contest, the Trojans were only able to compile 23 yards on the ground as the vaunted Cardinal defense completely stymied the USC run game. Spearheaded by outside linebacker Trent Murphy and inside linebacker Shayne Skov, the Stanford front seven simply overpowered the USC offensive line for much of the game, and the Trojans tailbacks never had a chance to get going.

2. USC second-half defensive lull
While it’s hard to pinpoint anything negative about a USC defense that played such an integral part in the victory, there were certainly instances in the second half where the Trojans looked to be worn down up front. At no time was this more apparent than early in the third quarter when the Cardinal offense ripped off a ten-play, 92-yard touchdown drive with typical Stanford efficiency. Following Wheeler’s blocked field goal on the following Cardinal possession, however, the USC defense appeared to get a burst of energy back that carried it through the rest of the contest.

3. USC pass coverage
Continuing a trend that has existed throughout the season, the cornerbacks struggled at times in coverage on Saturday night. Fortunately for the Trojans, however, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan and his receivers had problems of their own, and they were never able to really capitalize on any of the opportunities presented to them. The most obvious example of this occurred on Stanford’s opening drive when Ty Montgomery, who had blown by USC cornerback Josh Shaw, dropped a perfect toss from Hogan deep downfield. Hogan also missed an open Montgomery on a long pass in the third quarter.

Dawson eager for his new beginning

August, 26, 2013
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Lamar DawsonCal Sport Media via AP ImagesLamar Dawson has had his moments in two years at USC, but he's eager for a breakout season.

With fall camp now in the books, and the Trojans set to open the 2013 season at Hawaii this Thursday, there's a heightened sense of excitement running through the team. It was evident in the demeanor of the players leaving Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field on late Sunday afternoon following practice.

"It feels good," said junior inside linebacker Lamar Dawson. "I'm just ready to play. We're finally out of camp, and I'm excited to hit someone in a different colored jersey."

And it's Dawson, more than anyone, whose eagerness to hit the field is at what might be an all-time high -- and for good reason.

A prized prospect out of high school in the Class of 2011, Dawson was awarded the famed No. 55 jersey -- once worn by Trojans linebacker greats Junior Seau, Willie McGinest, Chris Claiborne and Keith Rivers -- upon his arrival at USC. He has had his bright moments to be sure, starting 13 games and collecting 102 tackles in his career, but he also has had his struggles, appearing to completely disappear from action at times.

Lamar Dawson
Johnny Curren/ESPNJunior LB Lamar Dawson understands the pressure of wearing No. 55 for the Trojans.
But after a stellar fall camp that came on the heels of an eye-opening spring, Dawson appears poised to break out with his best season yet in a Trojans uniform, and for him, the team's Aug. 29 opener just can't come soon enough.

"I'm ready to get back on the field and show how much I've improved from last year ... to just show my technique and put it all on film," said Dawson, who prepped at Danville (Ky.) Boyle County. "I feel like I've improved in a lot of different ways -- in getting off of blocks, in blitzing, man-coverage, and especially in just knowing the defense."

The first signs of improvement were apparent back in March. Part of an ultra-competitive position battle with Anthony Sarao at WILL linebacker, Dawson immediately took to the Trojans' new 5-2 defensive scheme, installed by Clancy Pendergast. He made plays all over the field, and on a much more consistent basis than he ever did at middle linebacker in the team's previous 4-3 set.

"I really just bought into Coach Pendergast's defense, and I really just took it day-by-day, and I just worked as hard as I could," said Dawson, who stands 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds. "We play with five defensive linemen -- they cover up the linebackers, and we're free to run from sideline to sideline. It really allows myself and the other linebackers to get to the football and to make more plays."

His high level of play extending into fall camp, Dawson has been hard not to notice this month. Taking the vast majority of the snaps with the first-team defense over the course of the last two weeks, his transformation from an unsure athlete with potential into a veteran performer ready to shine appears nearly complete.

Not surprisingly, when the team's season-opening depth chart was released this past Saturday, Dawson found his name sitting atop the list at WILL linebacker all by itself -- a significant feat considering Sarao, as well as promising freshman Quinton Powell, each had a strong month of August as well at the position.

But as the current bearer of one of the program's most revered numbers, Dawson knows that he has much more to prove on the actual field of play -- starting later this week in Honolulu. For the first time, however, it's a challenge he appears ready to take on.

"There's a great deal of pressure that comes with wearing No. 55, and I'm just going to try to take it day-by-day, week-by-week and just do my best to live up to it," Dawson said. "This is a big season for me."
USC head coach Lane Kiffin released a depth chart for the season-opening game against Hawaii with a few notable position items:

USC Trojans• There was no starting quarterback named. It is listed as Max Wittek or Cody Kessler.
Chad Wheeler has been named the starting left tackle. That’s a big move for a redshirt freshman who has shown a lot of promise.
Lamar Dawson won the competition at Will linebacker in a battle against Anthony Sarao and Quinton Powell.
Josh Shaw began the fall at strong safety but the good play of Su'a Cravens helped allow Shaw to move to free safety.

USC depth chart vs. Hawaii

QB: Max Wittek or Cody Kessler
TB: Tre Madden or Silas Redd or Justin Davis
FB: Jahleel Pinner or Soma Vainuku
WR: Marqise Lee; Darreus Rogers or Victor Blackwell
WR: Nelson Agholor; De'Von Flournoy
TE: Xavier Grimble or Randall Telfer
LT: Chad Wheeler; Nathan Guertler
LG: Max Tuerk; Giovanni Di Poalo or Jordan Simmons
C: Marcus Martin; Abe Markowitz or Cyrus Hobbi
RG: John Martinez or Aundrey Walker
RT: Kevin Graf; Zach Banner

OLB: Devon Kennard; Marquis Simmons or Scott Starr
DE: Leonard Williams; J.R. Tavai
NT: Antwaun Woods; Cody Temple or Kenny Bigelow
DE: George Uko; Greg Townsend Jr.
OLB: Morgan Breslin; Jabari Ruffin
ILB: Hayes Pullard; Michael Hutchings
ILB: Lamar Dawson; Quinton Powell or Anthony Sarao
CB: Kevon Seymour or Devian Shelton
CB: Anthony Brown or Torin Harris
FS: Josh Shaw or Dion Bailey or Demetrius Wright
SS: Su'a Cravens or Gerald Bowman or Leon McQuay III

PK: Andre Heidari
P: Kris Albarado
LS: Peter McBride (punts), Zach Smith (PAT, FG)
KR: Marqise Lee, Nelson Agholor
PR: Marqise Lee or Nelson Agholor or Darreus Rogers or Su'a Cravens
As the Trojans enter the final week of fall camp, the team held a high-energy practice Monday with players sensing that game week is near.

“I feel like we have things going in the right direction,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “It’s easy to have good energy when you’re in a night practice at the Coliseum but it’s another to come out today in the heat and respond the way they did. I thought that was a very good test for our team.”

The Trojans moved out of their camp dorms Sunday and into their fall housing. They will get a day off on Thursday and then begin game week practices on Friday in preparation for the matchup with Hawaii next week.

“Yeah, we’re getting a little antsy,” USC quarterback Max Wittek said. “It’s human nature at some point to want to play somebody with a different color jersey.”

Injuries continue to be an issue as Aundrey Walker and Demetrius Wright left practice today, but the good news was that Silas Redd got the most action he’s had all camp and Marqise Lee was basically back to normal with a full day of work.

“Hopefully we can get mostly healthy in the next few days,” Kiffin said.

For Lee, the yellow jersey was still on but the competition mode was in full effect and he made several plays. He beat Chris Hawkins on a pass down the sideline, caught a nice over the shoulder ball from Wittek and had a short touchdown at the end of the day when he caught a screen pass from Cody Kessler and got a good block from Nathan Guertler on Hawkins to scoot untouched into the end zone.

“I feel great,” Lee said. “I was just going out there and catching the ball. I’m ready to play a game, everybody is ready to play a game. I know the defense is ready.”

Lee gave a lot of praise to the unit he faces every day in practice and says he has paired with his roommate to try and fire up his teammates.

“The secondary is amazing right now,” Lee said. “They are going a great job, starting with AB (Anthony Brown). He uses the sideline really well to push you over there. Me and Josh Shaw are roommates so we started jawing out here to get guys going. Once we started, he went to George Uko and got him going, so I went to Marcus Martin on our line. It was on after that.”

Lee also gave his thoughts on the pending quarterback battle.

“I’m glad I’m not the coach in this case with the quarterbacks. This one is on Kiff’s back,” Lee said while smiling.

Kiffin had no announcement on a starting quarterback and gave no indication of when an answer is coming.

As for other news on the injury front, Kevon Seymour was back Monday in limited action after leaving the practice on Sunday night. Scott Starr, Morgan Breslin, Dion Bailey, Torin Harris and Ryan Henderson did not practice.

Marcus Martin sat out after leaving practice on Sunday so Max Tuerk took the majority of first unit snaps at center with Aundrey Walker at left guard and John Martinez at right guard. Abe Markowitz also took some reps with the first unit at center while Giovanni Di Poalo was with the 1’s at left guard after Walker went out.

Redd looked solid in his extended reps and he wore a yellow jersey along with fellow tailbacks Tre Madden and Justin Davis. Ty Isaac and Buck Allen were also available so it was a good day for depth at the spot.

The most productive player was Quinton Powell, who continues to make his presence felt from the inside linebacker position. Powell started the day with a sack on Kessler, stripped Ty Isaac of the ball after a long run and added a late interception of a ball that had been tipped in the air.

Other highlight plays included nice catches from reserve tight ends Kevin Greene and Chris Willson. The Willson grab in particular was a pretty one-handed effort. Wittek hit Jahleel Pinner with a 20-yard pass down the middle but Leon McQuay was right there and would have smacked him in a game setting. McQuay also had a blocked kick in a field goal drill, something he has done a few times this camp. Kenny Bigelow, Anthony Sarao and Devian Shelton all had sacks. Shelton also got bulldozed by Tre Madden in the flat and Madden went for about ten extra yards.

Quotebook

“I was scared for a moment. I took my time getting up because they didn’t know what was wrong but as soon as I got a chance to get up and move around I was fine. I kept telling coach Kiffin I was ready to go back in. I’m solid now, I’m ready to go.” -- Marqise Lee, talking about his bone bruise injury suffered on Aug. 9.

Injuries piling up for Trojans

August, 14, 2013
8/14/13
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The Trojans are at the midway point of fall camp and, with the injuries mounting, USC coach Lane Kiffin said the impact is being felt on the field.

“We’re starting to lose guys and it’s affecting our ability to rotate guys as much as we want,” Kiffin said.

There were no new injuries to report on Tuesday but among the players sidelined with previous issues were Marqise Lee, Nelson Agholor, Darreus Rogers, Silas Redd, D.J. Morgan, Justin Davis, Ty Isaac, Jordan Simmons, Leonard Williams, Morgan Breslin, J.R. Tavai and Josh Shaw.

Tre Madden
Johnny Curren/WeAreSC.comTre Madden is running with more burst, a bright spot for a Trojans team that's dealing with bumps and bruises.
From what has been reported, it doesn’t appear as if any of the injuries will put the players in jeopardy of missing the season opener, but they are still missing valuable practice reps.

“There are a lot of skill guys who aren’t available and that has hurt us in terms of developing an identity for the offense,” Kiffin said.

One position that has been relatively healthy is quarterback, as the battle between Cody Kessler and Max Wittek continues. Kiffin pointed out that both quarterbacks have done a good job of taking care of the football against a defense that does a lot of attacking from multiple spots.

“The number one theme for this team this year is about taking care of the football,” Kiffin said.

Wittek had an opportunity for a big play early today when he hit De'Von Flournoy in stride with a deep pass, but the ball was dropped. Wittek later hit Victor Blackwell with a pass over the middle that went right through Ryan Henderson’s hands.

He ended practice with a pair of completions to walk-on Robby Kolanz -- the first was a throw across the middle in traffic and the second came in the left corner of the end zone where Kolanz was able to fight off coverage from Chris Hawkins to make the play. The offensive players came over to celebrate with Kolanz, ending the practice session on a good note.

Kessler had an impressive touchdown thanks to some good running by Tre Madden, who caught a pass in the flat and outran Devian Shelton and Gerald Bowman to the end zone. Madden continues to look better and better with more work. He is still wearing a yellow jersey to indicate no contact, but it’s pretty obvious that he is getting close to full playing speed.

Kessler also showed his agility when he rolled left and hit Xavier Grimble with a first-down pass.

Hayes Pullard and Xavier Grimble were late to practice due to a class and, in Pullard’s absence, both Lamar Dawson and Anthony Sarao were on the field at the same time at the two inside linebacker spots. With Breslin out at OLB, Marquis Simmons and Jabari Ruffin have been alternating reps.

Anthony Brown had a nice pass breakup at the goal line of a Kessler pass attempt for Blackwell.

There was work on kickoff coverage drills at the start of the day, with John Baxter timing the coverage team getting downfield. The coverage unit which started the drill featured Andre Heidari, Dion Bailey, Quinton Powell, Shelton, Kevon Seymour, Su'a Cravens, Leon McQuay III, Henderson, Ruffin, Simmons and Soma Vainuku.

Quotebook:

“The left side of the offensive line is playing well together. I’m really excited about how they look and the fact that these are two young guys who could grow together. It will be really good to see how they play when you line up a couple veteran tight ends next to them with Grimble and Telfer.” -- Kiffin talking about left tackle Chad Wheeler and left guard Max Tuerk.
There are a lot of questions surrounding the USC football team as fall camp approaches, and we will look to answer as many of them as we can.

1. When will Lane Kiffin name a quarterback?

There’s a marked change in the way that USC linebacker Hayes Pullard carries himself on Cromwell Field during workouts this offseason that is hard not to notice. The redshirt junior is standing just a tad bit taller, his voice is booming a little louder, and he’s taken on more accountability in terms of coaching up the players around him.

In short, Pullard has emerged as an unquestioned leader of the defense. It’s an all too fitting responsibility for a tried and tested performer with 25 starts and 188 career tackles under his belt. And with USC head coach Lane Kiffin and Co. desperate to fill the void created by the loss of two outspoken veterans in safety T.J. McDonald and cornerback Nickell Robey to the NFL, it couldn’t have happened at a more crucial time.

“When I first came here, I was just trying to follow in their footsteps -- learning how to run a team from what they did,” Pullard said of the duo. “When they left, I just looked to my left, and I looked to my right and it was just me -- I realized that I had to take that role right then and there, and that I had to become that vocal leader.”

[+] EnlargeHayes Pullard
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireHayes Pullard has been aggressive in taking a leadership role on USC's defense this offseason.
But the last four months haven’t come without their challenges. With USC coming off a disappointing 7-6 campaign that saw the Trojans struggle at times against the up-tempo, spread offenses, new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was brought in and immediately installed a 5-2 defensive look differing dramatically, both in regard to alignment and philosophy, from the team’s previous 4-3 set. And after some initial growing pains, the defense eventually came together to play at an extremely high level this spring, and it appears to have kept the momentum going this offseason, with Pullard looking primed for a huge season at his new MIKE linebacker position after spending his previous seasons at weakside linebacker.

“In the spring, at first, it was kind of like, ‘How do we do this?’” said Pullard, who currently stands 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds. “Then, we got it a little bit, and now we’re just trying to take the next step out here during 7-on-7, and we’re still getting better. There’s a lot more talking going on, and we have that sense of brotherhood back on defense where we want to fight for each other. It’s a bond that I really like.”

Playing fast to the ball and physical, it was the inside linebackers -- led by new assistant coach Mike Ekeler -- that emerged as one of the star units of the spring. A collection that also includes two talented athletes battling it out at the WILL position in Lamar Dawson and Anthony Sarao, in addition to highly touted freshman Michael Hutchings as a backup at MIKE, it’s a group that is sure to play a key role in Pendergast’s attacking defensive scheme.

“We’re coming along good,” Pullard said. “Coach Ekeler and Coach Pendergast, they put us in places where we’ve never been before, and that’s going to help us the more we practice and work on it. We’re going to be fast and aggressive. We’re going to be a lot better than last year.”

With only Pullard, Dawson and Sarao possessing significant game experience on the inside, it’s the development of Hutchings -- an ESPN 150 prospect out of Concord (Calif.) De La Salle -- this offseason that will be watched with particular interest. To no surprise, Pullard has already taken the eager youngster under his wings, and he’s encouraged by what he’s seen so far.

“He’s all ears,” said Pullard, a Los Angeles Crenshaw product. “We need him right now, this season. So, I’ve been teaching him the playbook and how to run everything out here. I know that transition from high school to college is a big deal, but I’ve already seen a lot of improvement from him, and he’s going to get a lot better in the coming weeks.”

In Pullard, Hutchings has what could be considered to be the perfect mentor, but as for Pullard himself, he isn’t even close to being satisfied with where he’s at just yet.

“There’s always room for improvement,” Pullard said. “I just want to be a peak performer in every part of my game. I just want to get faster and stronger. You know, film wise, changing direction…every little thing counts. I feel like the big things are given to me by God, the little things, I have to work on.”

With his mindset focused on the task at hand, there’s no telling just how far Pullard will continue to take his game in the coming months. And now, with his defensive teammates following his lead on a daily basis, there’s certainly reason for optimism when it comes to the group’s production in 2013.
Josh Shaw
Joe Andras/WeAreSC.comWhere USC decides to play Josh Shaw could go a long way in determining the starters at cornerback and safety.
A look at nine positions marked by competition this offseason at USC.

Quarterback

Cody Kessler, Max Wittek and Max Browne all had their moments this past spring, but after 15 workouts, USC head coach Lane Kiffin decided that this was a battle that simply needed more time. It was Kessler, right from the get-go, who made the biggest statement with his play, most notably in the scrimmages. Wittek suffered a MCL sprain that caused him to miss a week of workouts, but with tremendous physical skills, he showed enough when he was healthy to keep this competition too close to call. Showing flashes of the talent that made him such a prized commodity coming out of high school, Browne isn’t out if it yet, either, and there’s no telling how far he just might take his game in the coming weeks. And that goes for all three quarterbacks, because with almost three months remaining until the start of fall camp, how they develop this summer will play a key part in determining who will ultimately line up behind center in 2013.

Cornerback

With Nickell Robey declaring early for the NFL draft and Josh Shaw making the move back to safety, the Trojans entered spring ball needing to find two new starting cornerbacks. On the post-spring depth chart, Anthony Brown was listed first on one side, with Torin Harris and Kevon Seymour sharing the other. But with Kiffin openly expressing his disappointment with the performance of this unit, it’s safe to say that both starting jobs remain open for the taking, with Chris Hawkins, Devian Shelton and Ryan Henderson also factoring into the conversation. Additionally, there’s a very real possibility that Shaw will switch back over to cornerback, where he started seven games in 2012. He’s still been lining up at safety during the offseason throwing sessions, though. Kiffin has also opened up the possibility of using star receivers Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor here.

Safety

Taking the place of three-year starters T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling -- now in the NFL -- for the majority of the spring was Shaw at strong safety and Demetrius Wright at free safety. Two impressive veteran athletes, both ultimately wound up sharing the top spot at their respective positions on the post-spring depth chart with a couple of early entrant freshmen who made a lightning-quick transition to the college game in strong safety Su'a Cravens and free safety Leon McQuay III. Complicating matters further, Dion Bailey and Gerald Bowman are set to return later this summer from injury, and both figure to challenge for a starting role -- particularly Bailey, who will make the transition from linebacker to strong safety. With so much talent, the potential move of Shaw back over to cornerback certainly makes sense on a number of levels.

(Read full post)

It was a big spring for the USC inside linebackers on a number of levels. Lining up out of a new defensive set with a dramatic change in philosophy, not to mention a new position coach in Mike Ekeler, they emerged as one of the standout groups of the spring. And so, with an eye toward next season, here’s a look at some of the major storylines of the offseason for USC’s inside linebacker corps.

New-look defense, new level of play

With the recently hired Clancy Pendergast installing a brand-new 5-2 defensive look, there was a ton of anticipation heading into the spring, as everyone wondered just how the inside linebackers would adjust to their new roles. All of the concerns were quickly erased as players such as Hayes Pullard, Lamar Dawson and Anthony Sarao made a lightning-quick transition and shined right from day one.

Hayes Pullard
Joe Andras/WeAreSC.comJunior Hayes Pullard has grabbed the reins at MIKE linebacker and has become a vocal leader.
In fact, with a mindset focused on attacking the line of scrimmage at all times, Pullard and Co. made more big-play stops and tackles for loss than they ever did out of the old 4-3 set, giving the defense a physical and active presence that it will desperately need in the fall. Throw in what has been the very positive influence of Ekeler, and there’s reason to believe that this unit’s production will go up dramatically in 2013.

Leader of the pack

No defensive performer made a bigger statement this spring than the veteran manning the starting MIKE linebacker spot -- Pullard. Coming off a 2012 campaign that saw him finish second on the team with 107 tackles, the redshirt junior out of Los Angeles Crenshaw simply took his game to another level. Showcasing unique football instincts and an aggresive brand of play, he’s a natural fit in Pendergast’s defense. With the way that he produced on the field this spring for the Trojans, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him garner consideration for some major postseason honors in 2013. Just as important, he emerged as an unquestioned team leader, speaking up when he had to while also setting an example with his work ethic.

Battle still raging at WILL

It didn’t necessarily receive a lot of attention going into spring ball, but when it was all said and done, the competition between Dawson and Sarao at the WILL linebacker spot ultimately stood out as one of the overriding highlights. In somewhat of a surprise move, it was Sarao who was lining up with the first unit at the outset of the practices ahead of Dawson -- a starter in the middle since his freshman season.

To Dawson’s credit, however, he more than answered the challenge, performing at a higher level than he ever has before -- continually drawing the praise of USC head coach Lane Kiffin. But Sarao didn’t back down either, looking more than at home in his role as a starter. In the end, however, it was Dawson who took his place with the first-team defense in the spring game. A sign that this competition isn’t over was that both players were listed atop the post-spring depth chart with the signature “OR” label placed between their names. With Dawson and Sarao acknowledging that they’ll continue to push each other throughout the spring, the one thing that is certain is that the Trojans are sure to have an extremely capable starter at the WILL spot this fall. And while both players will likely see the field in at least some capacity, there are only so many snaps to go around, and it’s going to be interesting to see just how this one shakes out.

Searching for depth

While Pullard, Dawson and Sarao have all proven themselves to a certain extent, the fact remains that there simply isn’t much depth at the two inside linebacker positions beyond those three performers. The MIKE spot is particularly thin, with walk-ons Will Andrew and Julian Coleman currently serving as backups. Therefore, the arrival of Class of 2013 signee Michael Hutchings this summer is sure to be welcomed with open arms by Pendergast and Ekeler. At 6-foot-1 and a rock-solid 213 pounds, the Concord (Calif.) De La Salle standout is known for his athleticism and playmaking ability, and there’s little doubt that he’ll make a major push for the role as Pullard’s primary backup in fall camp. Scott Starr is another name to watch at WILL -- assuming he’ll return in time after undergoing neck surgery this past season. Tough and rangy, the redshirt freshman out of Norco, Calif., has the tools to develop into a key contributor down the line.

USC Trojans spring wrap

May, 8, 2013
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USC TROJANS

2012 record: 7-6

2012 conference record: 5-4

Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 6; special teams: 1

Top returners: WR Marqise Lee, TB Silas Redd, TE Xavier Grimble, TE Randall Telfer, OL Kevin Graf, DL Leonard Williams, OLB/DE Morgan Breslin, LB Hayes Pullard, LB Dion Bailey

Key losses: QB Matt Barkley, WR Robert Woods, OL Khaled Holmes, DL Wes Horton, DB T.J. McDonald, DB Nickell Robey, RB Curtis McNeal, P Kyle Negrete

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Silas Redd* (905 yards, 9 touchdowns)

Passing: Matt Barkley (3,273 yards, 36 touchdowns)

Receiving: Marqise Lee* (1,721 yards, 14 touchdowns)

Tackles: T.J. McDonald (112)

Sacks: Morgan Breslin* (13)

Interceptions: Dion Bailey* (4)

Spring Answers

1. Agholor is ready to go: USC has been fortunate to have a pair of dynamic receivers recently in Woods and Lee. With Woods taking his talents to Buffalo, the question of who will fill that second receiver spot was answered resoundingly in the spring with a terrific performance by Agholor. It’s not a complete surprise to see this happen, as Agholor had shown flashes as a true freshman, but it was a bit of a shock to see him at such a high level. With Lee sidelined for much of spring with a minor knee injury, Agholor stepped up and was the most consistent offensive performer of spring.

2. New defense gets positive reviews: The offseason arrival of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast also brought a new 5-2 scheme for the Trojans, and there was a lot of anticipation to see how things would fit. After 15 practices, the results were fairly solid, especially in the front seven. The defensive line looks strong in the middle -- led by Williams and George Uko -- while Breslin picked up where he left off last fall with 3.5 sacks in the spring game. Pullard looks set at one inside linebacker spot with much-improved Lamar Dawson and Anthony Sarao still fighting it out for the other open spot.

3. Early enrollees as good as advertised: The Trojans took advantage of the early enrollee signing period by bringing in seven freshmen to take part in the spring session. It was a star-studded group led by QB Max Browne and S Su'a Cravens. All seven had moments showing why they were so highly touted with the most impressive all-around performance coming from tailback Justin Davis, who had Lane Kiffin saying he could push for the starting job in the fall.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback battle: The most high-profile position battle didn’t get settled in spring, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes when there is no decision, it’s because nobody is playing well -- that’s not the case here. Cody Kessler and Max Wittek have both shown enough to take over the starting spot after being in the program for two full years. Kessler was steady and came away with the unofficial nod as the projected starter from most practice observers. Wittek missed some time with a knee injury but still showcased the strong arm that will keep this battle going into fall camp. Browne will likely redshirt this year behind those two, but his talent is obvious.

2. Filling the cornerback spots: The need to get things settled at cornerback is the biggest concern coming out of spring. There were simply too many big plays from the USC receivers against a defensive scheme that needs the corners to be effective in coverage. It’s such a glaring problem that Kiffin said he will likely move Josh Shaw from safety to corner in the fall. Shaw had played corner last fall, but he moved to safety in the spring and was the best player in the secondary. The good news is that the Trojans should have plenty of bodies at safety to absorb the loss.

3. Impact of injuries and physical practices: There was a lot made of the fact that the Trojans were going to increase hitting in practice as part of the plan to be more physical in 2013. Kiffin had elected not to hit last fall in part to keep the team healthy with reduced roster numbers, but he ultimately decided that tackling in practice was simply too necessary. Then the injuries started to hit and by the time the end of spring rolled around, the Trojans had 20 players on the sidelines with various ailments, and they couldn’t tackle in the spring game. It’s unclear what the practice policy will be in the fall on this important issue.

Six emerging sleepers from spring 

April, 17, 2013
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Justin DavisKirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsJustin Davis has gone from being a true freshman in a deep group of running backs to being a legitimate threat to start for the Trojans in their season opener.
At every major college football program across the country spring ball represents a time not just for the established stars to refine their skills, but also for the lesser-knowns to take a step forward to show that they might be ready to contribute. That’s precisely what happened at USC in March and April, as more than a few under-the-radar Trojans made a major impression. They weren’t necessarily the players sitting at the top of the watch list heading into the spring, but here are six sleepers who made the most of the 15 workouts.

RB Justin Davis (6-foot-1, 215 pounds, Fr.)
It’s not as if Davis, an early entrant who enrolled at USC just this past January, arrived on campus without plenty of accolades. But with veterans such as Silas Redd already entrenched at tailback, he didn’t figure to make an overly significant immediate impact. Taking advantage of the increased opportunity that came with injuries to both Redd and D.J. Morgan, the Stockton (Calif.) Lincoln product was arguably the top tailback of the spring. Showcasing a fundamentally sound north-south running style with plenty of physicality, USC head coach Lane Kiffin has stated that the young freshman has the ability to start right off the bat this fall, and listed him along with Redd and Madden atop the post-spring depth chart Monday.

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