USC Trojans: Scott Starr
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.
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.
When one player is forced to sit on the sideline, it gives another player the chance for extended reps with the hope of showing the coaches he is ready for a bigger role. For the injured player, there is still plenty of time to return either in spring or in fall camp before the season begins. As quarterback Max Wittek noted after a recent knee injury, “you never want this to happen, but if it’s going to happen, better to have it happen now.”
AP Photo/Grant HindsleySilas Redd's knee injury opens the door for other USC tailbacks to impress this spring.
On the same day that Wittek got hurt, Marqise Lee also went down with a “minor” knee injury and has been held out as well. There isn’t as much of an impact here as Lee certainly isn’t in any competition for his starting job. If anything, his absence gave the other receivers a chance to step up and the overall group is doing well from top to bottom. Right now, Nelson Agholor appears to be the clear leader for the starting spot opposite Lee.
A recent loss came with the news that Silas Redd would undergo surgery this week for a torn meniscus. Redd is the established senior starter at tailback, but he has only been on the USC campus for eight months, so any time spent on the field was beneficial. Instead, Redd will be out until fall camp and the Trojans are further limited at tailback with Tre Madden still not cleared for full contact due to his knee rehab. That means the remaining spring practices will be huge for guys like D.J. Morgan, Buck Allen and maybe even Justin Davis, although it remains to be seen how much a recent broken finger will hamper him.
The offensive line had been fairly healthy until the news that Chad Wheeler will miss the rest of spring with a knee injury. Wheeler had added bulk and was progressing nicely as the No. 2 left tackle.
On the defensive side of the ball, injuries are really impacting the interior depth on the line and the safety positions.
There are three linemen who have missed all of spring: J.R. Tavai, Greg Townsend and Cody Temple. All three figure to provide important depth at the three interior spots of the 5-2 defense, so it’s vital to get them back on the field. Right now, the Trojans have Kenny Bigelow as a legit reserve at nose tackle, but the other spots are being manned by players out of position such as Charles Burks. Scott Starr is also out of action until fall, and he is expected to be a key reserve behind Morgan Breslin.
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesAs Dion Bailey recovers from shoulder surgery, the question of whether he'll play safety or linebacker in 2013 remains unanswered.
At corner, the top player through the early part of spring was Kevon Seymour, but he has missed the last couple of days with an ankle injury. Devian Shelton is also out with a foot injury. That means extended reps for Torin Harris, Anthony Brown and Ryan Henderson, as well as the freshman Chris Hawkins.
USC coach Lane Kiffin said after Saturday’s scrimmage that the time off for spring break this week was coming at a good time for a team looking to get a few bodies back. The Trojans return to the practice field next Tuesday and having some of those injured players on the field will go a long way toward helping to determine starting spots.
Kiffin also acknowledged that the extra hitting in practices so far this spring -- done to achieve his goal of returning to a more physical style of play -- has played a part in having so many injuries. He said the team will continue to practice with full hitting for the rest of spring but gave no word on if there will be any changes in philosophy beyond that point.
“I thought things looked good today,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “That is usually the case in spring, guys are fired up to get out here and start going to work. I also liked what I saw from our coaches, especially since some of them have only been with us for a short time. They were really ready to go.”
One of the new items to watch for the Trojans this spring is the 5-2 defense which is run by new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Kiffin said that getting the new defense set is the top priority of spring and the highlight play of the day was an example of how the defense can shine. Jabari Ruffin -- who was lined up at defensive end -- had an interception of a Cody Kessler pass after dropping back into coverage and leaping in the air to make the play.
Kessler is part of what is expected to be an intense quarterback competition along with Max Wittek and Max Browne. Kiffin said Kessler was on schedule to be named MVP of the day until the interception and he also liked what he saw from his true freshman.
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DE: Leonard Williams (6-foot-5, 270 pounds, So.); Greg Townsend Jr. (6-3, 260, RS So.) OR Kenny Bigelow (6-3, 295, Fr.)
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Here's a look at some players who could see their roles change:
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesWith the hiring of Clancy Pendergast as defensive coordinator, Devon Kennard could find himself playing outside linebacker.
DE Morgan Breslin to OLB: One of Breslin’s strengths in 2012 was his ability to rush the passer with his non-stop motor, and that kind of athleticism would seem to translate well to an OLB role.
DT Leonard Williams to DE: There really isn’t a limit to where Williams could star in this system, as his skill set could really translate to any of the line spots. But the initial thought is he would be a natural at end.
DT Antwaun Woods to NT: One of the keys to a good 3-4 is the nose tackle and Woods has the type of frame that would seem to fit well. He worked himself in a role last year, but there is still another level he would need to reach in order to be that kind of elite player in the middle.
DT George Uko to DE: This one is interesting. Uko has the frame to be an interior player and the athleticism to play on the outside. He gives Ed Orgeron another versatile option to use along the line.
LB/DE Jabari Ruffin to OLB: The coaches took a look at Ruffin at both outside linebacker and defensive end last fall, so it would seem natural that he would be a fit at the OLB role in the 3-4.
MLB Scott Starr to OLB: His high school coach has long said that Starr would be a good pass rushing end/OLB in a Clay Matthews-type role. This scheme could give him that opportunity.
OLB Hayes Pullard to MLB: This could be one of the most important fits, as Pullard would more of a free-flow opportunity to get to the ball, something that should fit his game well.
OLB Dion Bailey to S: The Trojans lose both starting safeties from last year and Bailey has made it clear that his preference would be to move back to his original position in the secondary. He did a tremendous job in two years at linebacker but his frame doesn’t fit the needs of an OLB in this scheme.
One of the most interesting areas of speculation for the Trojans this offseason has been the possibility of incorporating elements of the 3-4 into the defense next year. USC coach Lane Kiffin promised a thorough evaluation of the entire program following the 7-6 record this past fall, and there are a lot of reasons why he would consider the new defensive look. At the top of that list is that the 3-4 is considered a good defense to attack the spread if you can find two athletic outside linebackers who can run. The spread has obviously been an offense that has given the Trojans fits in recent years so it will be interesting to see how this shift works and how often it will be used. Will there be additional changes to the coaching staff beyond the defensive coordinator in an effort to bring other coaches who know the system? It’s possible. Of course, a lot of the success of the 3-4 will depend on how quickly the USC players can adjust to some different roles.
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Perhaps the biggest Trojans fan among USC’s verbal commitments, Fitts fulfilled a lifelong goal this weekend by officially visiting the campus.
“Stopping by the Coliseum on Saturday night was probably the best part of the whole visit,” Fitts said. “Growing up, it has always been a dream of mine to play at the Coliseum. Going through that tunnel gave me chills. I got caught up in the moment, picturing the crowd. Coach (Ed) Orgeron was there telling us to imagine taking the field and playing under these lights. ... It was amazing. I got a lot out of the visit. Being there on campus so much this year on unofficial visits, there’s not a lot of new stuff to learn. But talk to Coach O and being there this weekend gave me the feeling of already being enrolled. I can’t wait.”
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Starr, a true freshman from nearby Norco, Calif., will apply for a medical redshirt after experiencing neck problems. Kiffin expects the redshirt to be granted because Starr played in only three games.
The NCAA-mandated maximum for a medical redshirt is 30 percent of a team’s games. With three being 25 percent, any more games Starr participates in would cost him a year of eligibility.
Starr was listed as sophomore Lamar Dawson’s primary backup at middle linebacker but had been playing primarily special teams this season.
Garness, a junior-college transfer who hails from Anchorage, Alaska, has been with the Trojans since January 2011 but has not appeared in a game. He redshirted last season and will undergo back surgery.
Five of USC’s 75 scholarship players are expected to miss the entire 2012 season: Starr and Garness, along with sophomore tailback Tre Madden, freshman defensive end DeVante Wilson and senior end Devon Kennard.
It’s possible Kennard could make a late-season return from a pectoral muscle tear that he suffered in late July.
USC, ranked No. 13 in the AP poll following a weekend win over Cal, plays at Utah on Oct. 4 after its only bye of the season this week.
“Really, the story of the game was the line of scrimmage.”
“You know, you just look at the nine sacks to one -- and really Matt’s, he was stepped on by the guard -- and rushing yards, 296 to 77.”
“I know a lot of people would like 50-0 type games or higher-scoring games in general, but I think this game was really good for this team. I think that we all know that we can throw the ball well when teams allow us to, and that we have the great skill players in the receiving game to be able to do that. So I think it was more critical for this team to build confidence in its offensive line, running backs, and running game and defense. And that’s exactly what happened in this game.”
“The bye comes at a very good time. Hopefully not only will we get some guys back that are out, but also some guys that aren’t playing at 100 percent will get better with this extra time.”
“Two guys that will be out for the season, Scott Starr and David Garness, Scott Starr with a neck issue, and David Garness had to have back surgery.”
On whether Starr will be able to apply for a medical redshirt:
“Yes, we believe that he can, because of this happening before the last game. So we think that he will get that.”
On Andre Heidari’s performance:
“I think that’s a pretty big deal, to come off of that surgery and not just kick, but to be that effective and kick well. It says a lot about his rehab and his competitiveness.”
On the play of Matt Barkley against California:
“I don’t think there’s any way to fault Matt for his tipped interception. That’s a play where we are supposed to cut the defensive end with the tailback, and that didn’t happen. There’s no way that you can fault him for that. And the other one was just a little bit off with those two guys, Robert [Woods] and Matt -- who have obviously connected for a ton of completions. And you know, the defensive players are on scholarship too, and they make some plays sometimes.”
“And also, as that game was going, the way we were playing on defense, I thought it was critical to manage the game -- not have a lot of negative plays -- and I thought Matt did that.”
On the performance of Abe Markowitz:
“I thought Abe played great. He did a really good job with his pad-leverage, especially in the run-game. While I was watching it, I couldn’t help but think about him being in the game last week -- if he would have been cleared a week ago -- and the difference that would have made.”
On his confidence in Markowitz’s ability to play at either guard or center:
“We have a lot of confidence in him at all three of those spots -- both guards and the center. A lot of credit to Abe, I walked by the offensive line meeting room at 10 p.m. the other night -- that’s pretty late, considering these guys are here at 5:30 in the morning to start their day -- and he was here by himself watching film.”
On the status of George Farmer:
“George was not medically cleared to play in that game Saturday -- he didn’t even dress out. Hopefully he’ll be back this week.”
On T.J. McDonald’s performance against California:
“I think our defensive coaches, first off, did a great job coming up with a package where he’s basically a defensive end in it, and moves around and causes people some issues. And that’s really good for him for the next level, seeing him that close to the line of scrimmage doing things will just make him more valuable. He is playing great, and he plays on our special teams too. He’s a great Trojan.”
On Aundrey Walker’s performance against California:
“I thought that Aundrey played his best game of the year. He really responded to his partial demotion or whatever you want to call it. As coaches, that’s what we tell our players, ‘That’s what we want to see.’ We’re not trying to be critical, we’re trying to make our players better and challenge them. So he really stepped up and played his best game, and played really well in the run game. The goal for him is to keep improving, and we’ll keep bringing Max Tuerk along as well.“
On whether the competition at the left tackle position is open or closed:
“We’ll keep it going. Max did some good things, and like all true freshmen, made some mistakes -- got beat on a critical fourth down early -- and that stuff is going to happen with all of your true freshmen. It was good to get him in there some, and we’ll keep trying to do that.”
Note: There were also a couple of changes made in the official statistical numbers from USC’s victory over California that were brought up in the call:
USC has been credited with two additional sacks to bring the overall team total in the game to nine. George Uko is being credited with one of the sacks, while Antwaun Woods and Morgan Breslin combined for the other sack.
Additionally, California is now being credited with a team sack for a play on which Matt Barkley tripped and fell behind the line of scrimmage.
LOS ANGELES -- No. 13 USC Trojans beat California Golden Bears for the ninth straight season on Saturday at the Coliseum, 27-9. Here are news, notes and quotes from the game that won't make it into our other coverage from the day:
Coach Lane Kiffin likes to begin his postgame news conferences after USC wins by telling reporters what the "story of the day" was.
Sometimes, he's right on target; sometimes he's not. He was exactly right with his opening comments this time.
"I think that the game was won at the line of scrimmage," Kiffin said, pointing out that his Trojans had seven sacks to Cal's zero.
That really was the single biggest reason USC beat Cal on Saturday, the single biggest reason the Trojans were able to put last week's upset loss at Stanford behind them despite a decidedly less-than-perfect performance on offense and in the secondary.
"They came around today," defensive line coach Ed Orgeron said of his unit.
USC's linebackers have been the defense's strength over the last season-plus, and it's not necessarily any different now, but the Trojans' linemen really made the three 'backers look good Saturday.
"It's great when the linemen are rotating, staying fresh and keeping their linemen off us linebackers," said middle linebacker Lamar Dawson. "Then we can make plays."
Weakside linebacker Hayes Pullard said the linemen forced Cal quarterback Zach Maynard into some unusual mistakes.
Defensive end Wes Horton, who played at full strength for the first time this season, said the Trojans noticed in meetings this week that Cal's offensive linemen wouldn't be difficult to beat if schemed correctly.
"They were OK," Horton said. "It was a matter of creating the right moves to beat them."
Horton and fellow end Morgan Breslin certainly found them -- Breslin was credited with three sacks, the most by a USC defender since Rey Maualuga's 2008 Rose Bowl performance against Illinois.
“We wanted to make sure that our guys understand that we’re going to play a really good team,” Kiffin said. “We purposely made sure that we attacked them in the passing game. I totally believe that this is a big-time test. I don’t care who you play or where it’s at -- everybody played a football game on Saturday and nobody threw for more yards than they did. This is a really good quarterback and he started really well last year versus us.”
The biggest news of the day came following practice when Lane Kiffin named Max Wittek as the back-up quarterback ahead of Cody Kessler. It was a close battle, but the Trojans head coach felt a decision had to be made -- at least for now.
“Somebody has to be No. 2, and Max is No. 2,” Kiffin said. “It has nothing to do with who will be the starter next season. Both have commanded the offense well, they both made a bunch of plays and had good numbers throughout the fall.”
"It was good work for the most part," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "We pushed them today, and the offense responded, especially the skill guys. Robert (Woods) and Marqise (Lee) looked good, both tight ends, the running backs. It was a good day. I think there's a lot of excitement and anticipation from the players to get to the practice where we will see the most tackling, which is Sunday during the Coliseum scrimmage."
Kiffin singled out wide receiver George Farmer as having a particularly nice day, calling it his best session of the fall. Farmer went over the middle on two occasions to make catches and also had a nice sideline grab. Kiffin also praised Buck Allen after Buck had a beautiful 40-yard touchdown run toward the end of the day.
Cody Kessler ended the regular session of practice with a highlight play where he rolled right and threw deep on the run to Nelson Agholor, who caught the ball in stride and waltzed into the end zone. Kessler also had an earlier nice completion to Woods over the middle against Anthony Brown.
The big highlight of the day came after the conclusion of practice, when Kiffin had Andre Heidari try a 50-yard field goal, which would have earned the players an extra hour of sleep Saturday morning. Heidari hit the kick and the celebration ensued but then senior running back Curtis McNeal took it upon himself to make it double or nothing. Heidari missed the next kick wide left, so it will be another 6 a.m. wake-up call tomorrow. Kiffin joked that he told McNeal, "that's why you have no money."
Other big plays included Matt Barkley completing a touchdown pass to Randall Telfer, Scott Starr batting down a pass intended for Telfer, Barkley hitting Xavier Grimble over the middle and J.R. Tavai and Antwaun Woods combining to get a tackle-for-loss on McNeal.
Lamar Dawson was dressed at the beginning of practice but did not take part. Kevin Graf also did not practice, Nathan Guertler took his spot at right tackle with the first unit. Cody Temple was spotted on the sidelines with a boot on his right foot.
Farmer has missed most of fall camp while struggling with a hamstring issue but had a leaping 25-yard touchdown catch over Kevon Seymour and came back later with a short TD reception from Max Wittek. USC head coach Lane Kiffin said after practice that the next two weeks will be huge for Farmer in terms of staying healthy and preparing for the season. Farmer and Robert Woods were both involved in punt return drills.
Kiffin also mentioned that true freshman receiver Nelson Agholor has been coming along, adding that he’s a hard worker who often stays by himself after practice to get in extra work.
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