USC Trojans: Antwaun Woods

LOS ANGELES -- The Trojans get back to the practice field on Tuesday afternoon after taking a week off for spring break, and the development of a talented defensive front seven will be on display.

In particular, there are several players who had previously played limited roles but could now be looking to step into bigger roles after what they’ve shown through the initial spring sessions.

[+] EnlargeAntwaun Woods
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsAntwaun Woods could have an expanded role in 2014.
Along the line, Antwaun Woods appears ready to solidify his status as a nose tackle capable of a full-time starting spot. Woods does have 10 career starts under his belt -- to go along with 35 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and four sacks -- but his contribution was limited last year because he came out of games when the Trojans used their nickel package.

Now Woods has bulked up to 315 pounds, and with his 6-foot frame, he has what USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox calls “natural leverage.”

Not only has Woods made physical progress, he is also showing a more vocal leadership style in practice. During the first day in pads, there was a team drill held late in the day and Woods was front and center in the middle of the line getting his defensive mates fired up and challenging the offense. That's a side not previously seen from Woods and a sign of his veteran status within the team, something that could help provide a solid anchor in the middle of the Trojans D-line.

On the outside -- at either the OLB spot or stand-up DE spot depending on the alignment -- is a trio of long and athletic players in Quinton Powell, Scott Starr and Jabari Ruffin.

In the 4-3, Starr is the stand-up end in much the same role Clay Matthews played late in his USC career. He has very good pursuit speed when he gets into the backfield. Looking for his first start, Starr had 11 tackles in 2013 in a reserve role.

Powell and Ruffin are currently battling at the spot opposite Starr, an outside linebacker position where Sarkisian hopes to take advantage of their physical dimensions to cause problems for opposing quarterbacks in passing lanes. Ruffin has one start under his belt -- the 2013 season opener against Hawaii -- and has 22 career tackles. Powell made his share of impactful hits last season as a true freshman, primarily on special teams, and ended the season with 20 tackles.

The early returns from the opening week of spring indicate that the Trojans front seven could be one of the best in the conference, and it looks like these players will have a much bigger role in the coming year.
After a break in action, USC returns to Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field on Tuesday to pick up where it left off after a promising first week of spring drills under Steve Sarkisian.

Much was revealed during those initial three workouts, and here are three key things to keep an eye on as the Trojans go through the remaining practice schedule in March and April.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCody Kessler has adjusted well to USC's uptempo offense this spring.
The continued development of the players in the new systems

Week 1 was all about an uptempo pace as the players got their feet wet in new offensive and defensive schemes at a frenetic pace. To their credit, they appeared to adapt to it all in lightning-quick fashion.

And so, the big question now is just how much further can they come over the course of the next four weeks?

On offense, the progression of the passing game should be particularly interesting to watch. Both Cody Kessler and Max Browne performed solidly in Sarkisian’s hurry-up, shotgun-based offense. As they continue to grow at ease in the new system and develop more chemistry with their receivers, there’s reason to believe the aerial attack has the potential to really take off.

On the other side of the ball, Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 multiple-front defense has been a hit so far, due in large part to some outstanding play in the trenches. The front seven shined throughout the first week, even with Leonard Williams standing on the sideline due to injury. With unique size on the interior and hulking contributors like Delvon Simmons, Antwaun Woods, Kenny Bigelow and Claude Pelon combined with exciting athletes on the outside, this unit should get better and better this spring.

In the secondary, even with Josh Shaw out of action, Keith Heyward’s group has been making some impressive plays in coverage -- something they struggled to do under the prior regime. Will that trend continue? We’ll soon find out.

Competition, competition, competition

When Sarkisian took the reins in early December, one thing he stressed was that virtually every position would be up for grabs. He wanted to create an atmosphere of competition. And with one week of practice in the books, it’s safe to say that is precisely what's happened.

A number of tightly contested position battles have taken shape, none garnering more attention than the one at quarterback between Browne, Kessler and early-entrant freshman Jalen Greene. With some added bulk to his frame and an increased level of confidence, Browne really opened eyes with his play in Week 1, but that doesn’t mean Kessler backed down an inch. A vocal leader of the team, Kessler did a great job of directing the offense down the field with frequent success. He had the poise and command you’d expect from a veteran with 14 starts under his belt. Greene has displayed flashes at times, although he’s taken noticeably fewer snaps than his counterparts, both of whom appear to have a sizeable lead on him in this race.

On defense, the competitions for the two spots on the edge of the line have been the highlight so far. Quinton Powell and Jabari Ruffin are duking it out at SAM linebacker, with Scott Starr and J.R. Tavai battling at rush end. In Week 1, it was Powell and Starr running exclusively with the No. 1 unit, but, really, all four contenders have stood out at times.

Some previously hidden players have also begun to emerge as they’ve received somewhat of a golden opportunity to show what they can do in the new schemes. Powell and Starr are two such examples, as are tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, guard Khaliel Rodgers, tackle Nathan Guertler, cornerback Chris Hawkins and defensive end Simmons.

How physical will Sarkisian allow it to get?

With a new staff in place and a depleted roster (NCAA sanctions) made even more so because of a number of injuries, Sarkisian indicated when he took over at USC that he might not push the envelope too much when it came to live hitting this spring. That was certainly the case in the first week. But as the team progresses through the schedule this month and next, will we see the pads popping with greater frequency at any point?

There are certainly some added benefits that could come with more physical workouts, but there are drawbacks as well. Finding the perfect combination isn’t as easy as it might sound. Just ask Lane Kiffin.

Stay away from full-contact drills completely and you risk fielding a defense that could get pushed around and has tackling issues. That was the case in 2012.

But USC still lacks depth, and if you allow more hitting, you also run the risk of more players getting injured. That happened in 2013.

It’s a decision that could ultimately play a major role in shaping the identity of the team down the line, so it will be interesting to see which way Sarkisian goes here.

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.

WeAreSC roundtable: Stanford

November, 12, 2013
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WeAreSC staffers discuss Saturday's USC-Stanford game:

What is the key matchup?

Garry Paskwietz: You can really pick either side of the line as the key match-up for this game because both will be so important. I’ll go with the Trojans' D-line against the Stanford O-line as my choice, and I think it will be a fascinating battle to watch. The Trojans should be able to feature an interior front of Leonard Williams, Antwaun Woods and George Uko. That is a pretty formidable trio, but they will be going against a Stanford group that is as physical as any in the country, especially when they bring in extra linemen or tight ends to help reinforce their efforts. Bring the big-boy pants for this one.

[+] EnlargeTrent Murphy
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsStanford linebacker Trent Murphy and his teammates typically wreak havoc in their opponents' backfield.
Johnny Curren: The USC offensive line vs. the Stanford front seven. The Trojans' offensive line has put together two consecutive solid performances, but they haven’t faced anything close to what the Cardinal possess up front. Headlined by outside linebacker Trent Murphy, the Stanford front seven is the driving force behind a defense that averages 3.3 sacks per game and allows less than 100 yards on the ground. They played a pivotal role in Stanford’s victory over Oregon last Thursday, limiting the vaunted Ducks rushing attack to just 62 yards. No matter how well the Trojans perform defensively, if the offensive line can’t open up some rushing lanes while also keeping the Cardinal defenders out of the face of Cody Kessler, USC won’t stand a chance in this one.

Greg Katz: The key matchup will be the Stanford offensive line vs. the Trojans defensive line. We will find out if the Cardinal O-line’s physical play can overpower the Trojans' D-line, especially in the fourth quarter. Stanford lives to take 2-yard gains in the first quarter and turn them into 7-yard gains in the fourth quarter – especially during crunch time. If the lack of depth along the Trojans' defensive front is still in question after 10 games, we’re sure to find out the answer on Saturday night. Assuming the Trojans can score just enough points on offense to get a lead into the final quarter, it really gets down to whether Clancy Pendergast’s defensive front seven can hold up to the physical pounding the Cardinal will surely bring.

What is the moment or play that stands out to you from 2011 game?

Paskwietz: As much as I would like to pick the Robey interception, since it recaptured an energy that hadn’t been seen in the Coliseum in a while, I have to go with the penalty call against T.J. McDonald for the hit on Chris Owusu. I’ll grant that it was a bang-bang play that featured a hard hit, but I also firmly believe that it was not a foul on McDonald. The unfortunate thing for the Trojans is that the play call absolutely was a turning point. The USC defense had been playing so well against the Cardinal but couldn’t stop Andrew Luck and company from that point on in the game.

Curren: The play that sticks out to me is Matt Barkley’s pass to Robert Woods in Stanford territory at the end of regulation. With the game tied 34-34 with nine seconds left, Barkley hit Woods on a play that took just a little too long to develop. After running completely across the field following his catch, Woods was tackled at the Cardinal 33 with what appeared to be one second left on the clock. And with one timeout remaining, it looked as though USC would get a shot at a game-winning field goal. Ultimately, however, the referees determined with some controversy that time had expired before a timeout could be called, and USC wound up on the losing end of the triple-overtime thriller.

Katz: Boy, that game had such great memories, even though the Trojans lost in triple overtime. The moment that stands out here is when Trojans corner Nickell Robey picked off Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and ran it 32 yards into the end zone to give the Trojans a 34-27 lead with 3:08 to play. It seemed almost too good to be true, as it sure looked like the Trojans were about to pull it out. In the end, however, it was too good to be true because Luck was too good and marched his Stanford team right down the field to tie the game in regulation and eventually the triple-overtime victory.

Which player or position group will rise up in a big way for the Trojans on Saturday?

[+] EnlargeKessler
Jaime Valdez/USA TODAY SportsCody Kessler and the USC offense must rise to the occasion to have a shot at beating No. 4 Stanford.
Paskwietz: The Trojans offensive line. It's group that has been maligned at times this year but has shown steady progress despite some injury-related shuffling among the starters in recent weeks. This game offers a step up in competition with a strong Stanford defensive line, and it’s a challenge that the USC group will need to accept if the Trojans are to have a chance in this game. If the offensive line can give Kessler time and open up holes for the run game, it will go a long way toward a USC victory.

Curren: The USC wide receivers. While the Stanford defense has been absolutely stellar against the run, the Cardinal secondary has had temporary lapses in coverage, giving up 250.1 yards per game, which ranks No. 98 in the country. Because of that, I think that the Trojans might be able to find some success through the air. And with five healthy scholarship wideouts now at the disposal of the USC offense, there’s reason to believe that Marqise Lee & Co. could play a large role in the outcome.

Katz: I believe the player that will rise up in a big way for the Trojans on Saturday will be quarterback Cody Kessler. Kessler has been getting better and more confident each week, and the players around him have also improved dramatically. The reason Kessler will play big is because he knows the type of pass rush he will get from Stanford, and the Trojans will have a game plan with more play-action passes and improvised quarterback runs. Because of his underrated ability to run, Kessler will have the green light to take off and run downfield, which will force the Stanford defense to stay at home and play honest. I expect Kessler to play the best game of his young career on Saturday.

Takeaways help Trojans beat Utes

October, 26, 2013
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For a USC Trojans team that is fighting injuries and scrapping for every win, there was something that just seemed right about the way things played out in a 19-3 victory over Utah on Saturday.

Last week the Trojans were unable to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them in the loss to Notre Dame, but there were no such troubles against the Utes. In fact, Utah was able to drive for a field goal on its opening possession but that was it.

“It was an outstanding performance by our players,” USC interim coach Ed Orgeron said. “They had a good mindset throughout the week to pull together through adversity and the result is a happy locker room right now.”

It was the USC defense that set the tone by forcing four Utah turnovers -- three interceptions and a fumble -- and converting all of them into points to go into the locker room at halftime with a 16-3 lead.

First it was Josh Shaw, who had been moved back to corner after spending the past three games at safety. Shaw was able to intercept a ball that had been tipped by a Utes receiver, and it set up a 30-yard touchdown pass from Cody Kessler to Nelson Agholor for a 7-3 USC lead.

[+] EnlargeLeon McQuay III
AP Photo/Gus RuelasFreshman safety Leon McQuay III had one of USC's three first-half interceptions.
Next it was Antwaun Woods forcing a fumble on a sack of Utah quarterback Travis Wilson. Anthony Sarao recovered at the Utah 19. The Trojans went three-and-out, but Andre Heidari was able to convert a 35-yard field goal for a 10-3 lead. In the first quarter alone, the USC defense had three sacks, five tackles for loss and two takeaways.

Leon McQuay III, who got his first start for the Trojans at safety, was able to get an interception after Wilson rolled to his right and threw late, with McQuay moving in for the ball at the right moment. Heidari was able to hit a 38-yard field goal to make it 13-3 and then late in the half, with time running out, the Utes inserted Adam Schulz at quarterback in place of Wilson, who was having trouble throwing the ball with a hand injury. Schulz didn’t fare any better as his first pass was intercepted by Su’a Cravens, who returned it 54 yards to the Utah 10. Heidari added a 28-yard field goal as time expired.

“We had emphasized all week on getting back to our dominant selves,” USC linebacker Hayes Pullard said. “We wanted to give up nothing on the field. We just had to execute the plan the coaches gave us and transfer that to the field during the game.”

About the only things that went wrong for USC were injuries to Cravens and offensive tackle Kevin Graf. Cravens injured his groin on the interception return, while Graf left the game earlier with a left ankle/foot injury. The string of injuries for the Trojans is long right now with players such as Marqise Lee, Xavier Grimble, Randall Telfer and Morgan Breslin being forced to sit out the game. In fact, once Cravens went down, the Trojans were forced to suit up Dion Bailey, who had been on the sidelines in street clothes during the first half.

“We knew that at the nickel position we only had one guy to play,” Orgeron said. “He [Bailey] knew that and he told us he wanted to play so he put on his uniform and went out there. It shows that these guys believe in each other and are willing to sacrifice for the good of the team.”

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesCody Kessler passed for 230 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions.
J.R. Tavai, who was playing for Breslin, led USC with 11 tackles and two sacks. The second-leading tackler was Sarao with nine, and he was subbing for the injured Dawson. It has been that kind of year for the Trojans with injuries, but it’s easy to get well when the opposing offense puts up only 201 total yards and averages less than 3 yards per play.

For the Trojans offensively, it wasn’t exactly a banner day either. USC gained only 30 yards rushing when factoring in sack totals. Tre Madden led the way with 60 yards on 12 carries. Kessler had a solid day with 21 completions in 32 attempts for 230 yards and one touchdown with no picks, but he was also sacked five times. The Trojans did not turn the ball over, but third-down conversions (3 of 15) continue to be an issue.

A special mention needs to be made of Heidari, who saw his job put open for competition this week after he missed two critical field goals against Notre Dame. Heidari admitted at practice earlier in the week that he was in “a funk,” but he appeared to get out of it by hitting on 4 of 5 field goals in a nice rebound performance.

“Andre is money,” Kessler said. “He’s a great kicker. Unfortunately he missed some kicks last week, but he’s one of the best kickers in the nation in my opinion. I have 100 percent confidence in him. When he’s focused and locked in, he is spot on.”

The Trojans travel to Oregon State next Friday to face a Beavers team that will not likely struggle on offense the way the Utes did. Orgeron will be looking to get his team as healthy as possible on a short week in order to play at a place that has not been kind to the Trojans in recent memory and against a team that is more than capable of providing a much stiffer test.
Here are some selected quotes from USC head coach Ed Orgeron’s Sunday night conference call following the Trojans’ 14-10 loss to Notre Dame.

Opening statement:

“After reviewing the film, there were some outstanding efforts by our guys. ... We felt that the penalties hurt us at the end, and put us in a bad position on third down ... too many penalties and too many mistakes put us in crucial situations.

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Planning for success: USC Trojans

September, 19, 2013
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The USC defense is off to a strong start in 2013, but its biggest test of the young season awaits on Saturday in the form of Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton, a talented junior who has put up huge numbers in the Aggies spread offense. Keeton is completing 78 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns to only one interception, and he is also the team's leading rusher.

That kind of dual-threat ability makes Keeton a tough target and one that will receive the full attention of the Trojans defense. So far this year the Trojans have done a good job of playing assignment defense in a scheme that requires attacking from different angles on most every play. That will need to continue on Saturday to prevent Keeton from breaking a big play.

Look for the Trojans to try to get in the backfield quickly in an effort to prevent Keeton from having a chance to make an option decision. This will be especially important for front-line defenders such as Leonard Williams, Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard.

It will be interesting to see how the Trojans choose to use their personnel groups in the secondary, since they likely will be in a nickel package most of the game. In the first two games against spread teams, the Trojans played a lot of nickel with Josh Shaw and Su'a Cravens at the safety spots and Dion Bailey playing in the slot. Against Boston College and its traditional pro-style scheme, Shaw was at corner with Bailey and Cravens at safety, plus Antwaun Woods was at nose tackle on the line. Assuming the Trojans are primarily in nickel against the Aggies, do they keep Shaw at corner? Does Bailey stay at safety or go to the slot? Could Demetrius Wright be an option at safety?

Injuries at corner could be a factor in that decision. Kevon Seymour was limited in action against Boston College, and USC coach Lane Kiffin said Seymour is continuing to recover from a recent injury. Anthony Brown left the Hawaii game with an apparent ankle injury and has not been seen on the field since. The Trojans are fortunate that experienced senior Torin Harris -- who has seen his share of injuries in his USC career -- is healthy enough these days to line up as the corner opposite Shaw.
LOS ANGELES -- The USC Trojans held their final scrimmage of fall camp on Wednesday at the Coliseum and if you were waiting on a resolution to the quarterback battle, be prepared to wait a little longer.

Both quarterbacks had their opportunities in the scrimmage, which was a different format than normal. Instead of having one quarterback with the first unit and the other with the second, the quarterbacks alternated series with the first unit while going against the service team defense.

[+] EnlargeMax Wittek and Cody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThe last scrimmage didn't give any indicator on which QB, Max Wittek (left) or Cody Kessler (right), will start in the season opener.
In the first half, the service team defense held its own by limiting the offense to three field goals, intercepting Cody Kessler twice. Those were the first two interceptions Kessler had thrown in the Coliseum this year between spring ball and fall camp but, to be fair, both balls were tipped high in the air before landing in a defender's hands.

The first interception came on the opening drive. Kessler had driven the offense into the red zone -- helped by a nice Tre Madden toss sweep behind blocking from Chad Wheeler and Jahleel Pinner -- but was intercepted by walk-on Nick Schlossberg on a slant pass attempt to Marqise Lee.

Max Wittek came in and was promptly sacked by Delvon Simmons. Wittek had a long completion to Xavier Grimble on a real strong throw. Justin Davis got the ball inside the 5-yard line, but the drive stalled and the offense settled for a 21-yard Andre Heidari field goal.

It was supposed to be a non-tackling scrimmage, but Torin Harris must not have got that memo because he laid a pretty good lick on walk-on receiver Christian Guzman. George Uko added a sack.

Kessler was picked on the next series by walk-on John Auran.

Wittek hit Agholor deep on the first play of the next drive. Schlossberg came on a blitz on the next play and was met by a terrific block from Javorius Allen. Kevin Greene had a sack on third down to force a 42-yard field goal by Heidari.

Marcus Martin started at center but he went out as a precaution. Max Tuerk was moved to center with Nathan Guertler stepping in at left guard.

Chris Hawkins had a nice pass break-up of a Kessler attempt to Lee, resulting in another Heidari field goal.

Lee went out later in the scrimmage and was seen with ice on his shoulder on the bench. By the end of the scrimmage the ice was off, and both Lee and Kiffin said things were “fine”.

The rest of the scrimmage basically belonged to Nelson Agholor. He caught two touchdowns from Kessler and one from Wittek to end the day with nine catches for 250 yards and three touchdowns. Lee had eight grabs for 107 yards.

There were plenty of players who sat out the scrimmage due to various injuries. Dion Bailey, Morgan Breslin, J.R. Tavai, Ryan Henderson, Marquis Simmons, Scott Starr, Cyrus Hobbi, Cody Temple, Silas Redd, Jordan Simmons, Victor Blackwell, D.J. Morgan, Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, Kevon Seymour and Randall Telfer were all sidelinded.

The starting lineups were as follows:

Offense: Kessler, Madden, Pinner, Lee, Agholor, Grimble, Wheeler, Tuerk, Martin, John Martinez, Kevin Graf.

Defense: Devon Kennard, Leonard Williams, Antwaun Woods, Uko, Jabari Ruffin, Hayes Pullard, Lamar Dawson, Anthony Brown, Harris, Josh Shaw, Su'a Cravens.
While USC coach Lane Kiffin did praise the way that the defense performed on a hot, balmy Tuesday, the topic of injuries quickly turned into the dominant theme of the post-practice media scrum. Kiffin called the current situation “very concerning,” particularly with the team’s season opener just a little over a week away.

“We had 21 guys today that didn’t practice, [and] there were more that couldn’t have contact in the yellow jerseys,” Kiffin said. “You start getting into the 20s with guys not practicing at all – we’ve got some really short lines and some really unfamiliar names playing with the first and second units, so obviously we didn’t plan for that to happen.”

Among those sidelined were Dion Bailey, Su’a Cravens, Kevon Seymour, Morgan Breslin, J.R. Tavai, Scott Starr, Victor Blackwell, Ty Isaac, Xavier Grimble, Randall Telfer, Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick and perhaps most noticeably Aundrey Walker, who left Monday's practice early with an undisclosed injury.

“Aundrey wasn’t able to practice today,” Kiffin said. “We anticipate him practicing tomorrow.”

Marcus Martin
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergUSC center Marcus Martin returned to practice Tuesday.
On the positive side, center Marcus Martin returned Tuesday after getting nicked up during the team’s scrimmage on Sunday night, so the offensive line featured a starting lineup that was comprised throughout practice of Kevin Graf at right tackle, John Martinez at right guard, Martin at center, Max Tuerk at left guard and Chad Wheeler at left tackle.

With the three top tight ends atop the depth chart out in Grimble, Telfer and Cope-Fitzpatrick, the USC offense relied on the very unlikely trio of Chris Willson, Shane Sullivan and Kevin Greene -- a development Kiffin brought up as an example of a position group decimated by injuries.

“One [Willson] was a quarterback a week ago, one [Sullivan] we’re just learning his name, and the other one [Greene] was a defensive end a week ago,” Kiffin said. “They’re doing the best that they can.”

Highlights from practice:

  • The Trojans spent the majority of the day in an extensive 11-on-11 period, with Kessler starting the session with the first unit at quarterback, although Wittek also saw plenty of time with the ones throughout the course of the day.
  • Defensively, the No. 1 defense was made up of a group that included Torin Harris and Anthony Brown at cornerback, Josh Shaw and Demetrius Wright at the safety spots, Hayes Pullard – in a yellow jersey – and Lamar Dawson at inside linebacker, Devon Kennard and Jabari Ruffin at outside linebacker, George Uko and Leonard Williams at defensive end and Antwaun Woods at nose tackle.
  • Kessler got things started with a couple of nice quick strikes to Marqise Lee – also in a yellow jersey – right off the bat before connecting with De’von Flournoy for a first-down pick-up. Wittek followed that with a connection to Darreus Rogers for 10 yards. Javorius Allen took a handoff a short while later, but outside linebacker Charles Burks – who has impressed lately – wrapped him up immediately for a loss in the backfield. Justin Davis followed that with a nifty run in which he made a nice cut right after he got past the line for a big gain. Wittek tried to hit Sullivan in the flat, but Dawson came up and nearly picked the ball off. Allen broke off a nice, 10-yard run. Uko, Ruffin and Dawson each racked up sacks. Wittek came up with the play of the day shortly thereafter, hitting Nelson Agholor on a deep throw down the sideline over Harris for a gain of about 45 yards.
  • A brief red-zone period immediately followed, with Kessler opening things up by connecting with Flournoy for a touchdown. Kessler also connected on short passes to Sullivan, Agholor and Pinner. Wittek hit Agholor for a short gain, but he also had a ball batted down by Hutchings at the goal line. Tre Madden finished the session off by plowing into the end zone from two yards out.
  • The team finished the day with each quarterback getting a chance to lead the offense in a two-minute drill, but both drives stalled without a score.

Kiffin revealed that Wednesday’s scrimmage won’t be particularly physical – in fact, there won’t be any live tackling – but it could provide a potential look at how certain position battles are shaping up and how the rotations might look. Kiffin plans to break the team into two groups, with one of those being comprised of the players expected to play most.

“We will divide the guys so that we can really practice a game for the first time where, really, the main guys are together on one sideline, so that we can get used to the substitutions on offense, defense and special teams,” Kiffin said. “We can get used to the offense coming to the sideline with the coaches, and the defense coming to the sideline, and having a break between series. And then basically a service team will be on the other side.”

WeAreSC roundtable: Progress report 

August, 8, 2013
8/08/13
4:00
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As the Trojans prepare for the first scrimmage of fall camp, WeAreSC staffers give their thoughts on several items from the opening week of camp.

The quarterback battle

Garry Paskwietz: Yes, this is a close competition but if you were to poll the majority of people who have attended practice, the vote would go to Cody Kessler. It doesn’t mean Lane Kiffin is thinking that way, it just means Kessler looks a little more polished and in command to those watching from the sidelines. One thing about [Max] Wittek, however, is that he is really zipping the ball, there is no doubt about his arm strength. It will be interesting to see if the Thursday scrimmage gives one of them a leg up in this battle.


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The Trojans got in a long day of work on Tuesday as they get closer to the first scrimmage of fall camp, which will be held on Thursday at the Coliseum.

USC coach Lane Kiffin described it as a “back and forth” day with good plays being made at times on both sides of the ball. Kiffin continues to say that there is no movement on the quarterback front as the competition continues among Cody Kessler, Max Wittek and Max Browne.

In today’s session, Kessler hit several passes to the tight ends, including Randall Telfer, who was back in action after missing recent practice sessions. One of Kessler’s completions was to Xavier Grimble, who made a pretty one-handed grab. Wittek connected with Darreus Rogers on a 20-yard crossing route and also had a nice deep completion to Nelson Agholor against coverage from Kevon Seymour. Wittek was also intercepted twice, once each by Lamar Dawson and Devon Kennard.

[+] EnlargeLamar Dawson
Chris Williams/Icon SMILamar Dawson had several big plays, including an interception, during Tuesday's practice.
Ty Isaac had multiple nice runs as he continues to impress in his first week of action.

On the defensive side of the ball, Dawson also had a nice play when he tracked down Tre Madden in the backfield for a tackle for loss. Scott Starr and Morgan Breslin each had sacks while Leonard Williams had a pass batted down at the line. Devian Shelton had a pass break-up against Agholor on a throw from Wittek. After the practice, Kiffin singled out Shelton as an “under the radar” guy who has flashed his playmaking skills.

Left tackle Aundrey Walker did not practice and Kiffin called him a “day-to-day” situation. In his absence, Chad Wheeler took the majority of reps with the first team at left tackle and Max Tuerk, who has been starting at left guard, also spent time at tackle. Right guard John Martinez and linebacker Hayes Pullard were both back in action after missing recent time.

Quotebook:

Cody Kessler on the USC defensive line:
“Our D-line is awesome. Leonard [Williams], when you look at him, he’s so big and physically gifted, and so is Devon [Kennard], and George Uko and Morgan. All four of them, when they’re in they’re just amazing. And then you throw Antwaun Woods in there, and all of these other guys that have come in – our d-line is very strong…and it only improves us. When you have that time-clock in your head and you know that your d-line is going to be on you if you don’t five-step and pitch the ball out. If you take time there’s going to be a sack.”

USC WR coach Tee Martin on Darreus Rogers:
“He showed the signs in the spring, and now he’s carried over from a good summer of learning. He retained a lot from spring ball, and I can see the improvement that he’s made from the spring. I give him credit for the hard work that he’s put in. It’s showing. He’s getting lined up, he’s knowing what to do, he’s playing with confidence, and I just look forward to him completing training camp to see just how good he can get before the first game.”

Torin Harris on the primary reason for his improved play:
“I’ve been injured, I’ve had some setbacks, and now I’m healthy, so it’s time to show up. I’ve just got to maintain, I’ve got to keep making progress and keep going for it. I know what the coaches want now, so I just have to keep improving and to show them what I can do every day.”
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It didn’t take long for the new 5-2 defense to show itself Sunday in USC fall camp as Day 2 definitely belonged to that side of the ball.

“It was a really good day for the defense in terms of forcing turnovers,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “They did it a couple series in a row, too, which was good to see. I thought their energy was really good from the start and they carried it through the end of a long practice.”

Su’a Cravens had the first interception of the day for the defense in a throwing drill. It was an athletic, leaping play on a Cody Kessler pass intended for Marqise Lee.

“It feels good to make plays,” Cravens said. “Especially against a Biletnikoff winner, but Marqise will probably try to head-hunt me tomorrow and go deep on me, so we’ll see what happens.”

Chris Hawkins had an interception of Max Browne and Torin Harris came up with interception No. 3 for the defense in the final team drill of the day when he battled with Nelson Agholor and came down with a pass from Browne.

The defense also did a good job creating pressure on the quarterback and came away with sacks by Devon Kennard, Morgan Breslin, Leonard Williams, Antwaun Woods and Quinton Powell.

Safety rotation

On the first day of camp, Dion Bailey and Cravens lined up with the first unit at safety. On Sunday, it was Josh Shaw and Demetrius Wright. Kiffin said there is nothing to read into who is starting now because nothing is set. This is a very good safety group that can go six deep if you include Gerald Bowman and Leon McQuay. Kiffin mentioned that depth when discussing special teams; he said it will be important for the safeties and running backs to contribute there because both units have such good depth.

Speaking of special teams

The Trojans did live punt drills at the beginning of practice with Kris Albarado and Joey Krassenstein alternating as the punter. Albarado was getting some good air under his punts. Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor were alternating as the return men.

Transferring in

Incoming transfer defensive lineman Delvon Simmons practiced and was wearing No. 97. He’s got good size and looks like the kind of player who could make an immediate impact, although the 6-foot-5, 290-pound Simmons will have to sit out the 2013 season as a transfer from Texas Tech.

Flipping sides

USC
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireKevin Greene (81) lined up at tight end in Sunday's practice.
Kevin Greene came out for practice in his familiar No. 81 jersey, but he lined up at tight end, instead of his usual outside linebacker spot. It makes sense to give this a look as the Trojans are a little thin at tight end while the outside linebacker spot is looking solid right now. Kiffin said it’s not a permanent switch yet, just something the coaches will look at to see how it goes.

Recruits in attendance

Offensive lineman Jordan Austin (Claremont, Calif./Claremont) and ESPN 300 defensive end Malik Dorton (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco).

More on-field highlights

In a team drill, Kessler had a completion to Agholor that gained roughly 15 yards. ... Leonard Williams fought off a block attempt by John Martinez in order to corral Tre Madden. ... Lamar Dawson and Michael Hutchings plugged a hole to stop Ty Isaac. ... Madden finished off the reps for the first unit with a long run up the middle. ... Browne came in and hit Buck Allen with a swing pass along the right side for 20 yards.

In the final team drill of the day, Demetrius Wright batted down a pass attempt for Lee, Kessler hit Agholor for a first down and Justin Davis had a pretty, weaving run along the left side for 20 yards.

Kiffin said after looking at film from the Saturday practice he was impressed with Madden and Davis. He called them “special players with unique skill sets.”

Quotebook

Su’a Cravens on coming out with a strong effort on Sunday, highlighted by a leaping interception over Marqise Lee on a Cody Kessler pass:

“Yesterday [Saturday] I had an all-right day. It was kind of slow for me, and I made a couple of mistakes. Today [Sunday] I feel like I was more on myself – I studied a lot with Chris Hawkins in my room before practice and I feel like I was on it.”

Marqise Lee on the interception by Cravens:

“At the end of the day, if he’s going to do it in the game, then hey, I don’t mind him doing it to me. ... But tomorrow is another day and I’m not going to let that happen.”

Leonard Williams, on the defense’s standout performance during the team period on Sunday:

“The offense got us [Saturday]. We came out kind of quiet, and I feel like the defense really responded [Sunday].”

Williams, on what has been a noticeable emphasis by the defense to attempt to force turnovers so far this fall camp:

“Day 1 of camp, the coaches just told us that the ball is the most important thing in the game, so we’ve really been emphasizing that with turnover drills with every position on the defense. We’re just really working on getting the ball. Not only are we doing it in drills, but we’re carrying it over to team when we’re going against each other. So every time that one of us is holding somebody up, another guy is coming in and going for the ball. Everyone is going for it.”

Williams, on one of the primary factors behind the defensive unit’s energetic effort on Sunday, inside linebacker Hayes Pullard:

“Hayes is the leader of our defense and he’s a really hyped guy, so we all feed off of him. I feel like everyone is really responding to it and feeding off of that energy.”

Kevin Greene, on when he found out that he would be lining up at tight end on Sunday:

“They basically told me this afternoon. Coach Kiffin said, ‘We’re going to try something different today.’ So I went out there with a smile on my face. I’m not going to come out here and pout. Whatever the coaches want me to do, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Greene, on how the first day at tight end went:

“It was basically just about getting my feet wet. Over time I’m pretty sure that I’ll feel a lot more comfortable – once I take some more snaps and understand what I’m doing out there.”

Greene on the last time that he played on the offensive side of the ball:

“Senior year of high school – when I first started. It’s been a while. I started off playing wide receiver. I did that for about a game or two, then I went strictly to defense from there. So, just playing about four or five years of straight defense, and then switching the mindset like that in one day, it could be tough, but at the same time I’m definitely willing to learn.”
LOS ANGELES -- With fall camp fast approaching, there has been a noticeable change in the atmosphere of the Trojans’ volunteer passing sessions of late. The light-heartedness and laid-back feel that was evident at times back in early June has been replaced with a general mood of urgency and marked enthusiasm, with just about everyone raising their level of play as a result.

Reflecting that aura of focus and anticipation better than anyone is the veteran performer leading the defensive line through their drills each day, outside linebacker Devon Kennard. A fifth-year senior with 18 starts and 135 tackles to his credit, his time in a USC uniform has been filled with its peaks, but perhaps more noticeably, its valleys as well -- stunting a career that has always appeared to be on the cusp of taking off.

Devon Kennard
Courtesy of Robert DouglasA year after suffering a torn pectoral muscle, Devon Kennard is ready to make up for lost time.
It was almost a year ago exactly, in fact, when Kennard was dealt his biggest setback, a torn pectoral muscle suffered during a weightlifting workout that would require him to go under the knife for the third time in his career and force him to miss the Trojans’ entire 2012 campaign.

And while it was a low point to be sure, the Phoenix (Ariz.) Desert Vista product worked his way back into action in time to establish himself as one of the team’s star performers of this past spring. And now, with the chance to finally hit the field in a game for the first time since his junior season, USC’s Aug. 29 opener at Hawaii simply can’t come soon enough.

“I’m definitely excited to get the season started,” Kennard said after a workout on Cromwell Field late last week. “Everyone else is excited to play too, and they played this last season -- they practiced and were able to play in games. I haven’t played since the 2011 season, so I would like to think that I’m twice as excited as anyone else. I think I showed that in the spring, just with how excited I was to be in pads and to be able to finally hit someone, and I’ll have that same energy once fall camp opens up, and I just can’t wait for that first game.”

And Kennard’s enthusiasm has to do with more than just coming back from injury, but also with the fact that he appears to have finally found his niche on defense. After starting his career at USC as a defensive end, he was eventually moved over to strongside linebacker as a freshman, then to middle linebacker as a sophomore, and then back to defensive end as a junior.

With so much jumping around, Kennard never seemed to have time to develop and find a level of comfort at any one position -- that is until defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast arrived this past offseason with his new 5-2 defensive scheme. Now lining up as the starting SAM linebacker -- a hybrid linebacker/defensive end position -- he seems to have finally found a spot that fits his talents to near perfection.

“This is the best fit for me overall, I think,” Kennard said. “Just with my size, stature and physical abilities, I feel like it allows me to do everything that I can do, and it challenges me athletically. And that’s what you want as a player, to find a position where you fit kind of like a puzzle piece, and that’s what I feel like with this defense.”

But Kennard isn’t the only one who appears to be primed for a big season. Part of a defensive line corps that also includes standouts like Morgan Breslin at Predator linebacker, defensive ends Leonard Williams and George Uko, as well as nose tackle Antwaun Woods, the entire group shined throughout the spring, and they’ve continued to look sharp this summer. But with much still to prove, Kennard remains cautiously optimistic when it comes to the unit’s prospects for 2013.

“Between the three interior guys, and me and Morgan at the outside linebacker spots, we have the potential to be a really good defensive front,” Kennard said. “And we understand that, but we don’t want to get complacent, automatically thinking that we’re going to be great. We have to come out and bring it and show it every day.”

It’s that ability to keep things in perspective -- combined with a model work ethic -- that has aided in Kennard’s emergence as a team-leader this offseason, and it’s a role that he’s more than comfortable with.

“I’ve definitely embraced being a leader,” Kennard said. “I feel like I came into USC with the mindset of wanting to earn my teammates’ respect with the way that I work, and that’s the exact same mindset that I took into the spring. I hadn’t played in a year, and some guys hadn’t seen me play at all, and some guys hadn’t seen me play in a long time, and I wanted to show them what I could do on the field first, with the way that I work and with my workouts. I think that I’ve been able to do that, and that I’ve earned the respect of my teammates and coaches, and I just want to continue to do that.”

Bringing so much to the table on so many levels, it’s plain to see that Kennard’s return to action could wind up paying big dividends for USC this fall. And having gone through the myriad of ups and downs that he’s experienced, it’s safe to say that no one is more thankful for that fact than he is.

“I think that everything happens for a reason, and I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of this team going into the 2013 season, especially with the defense that we’re playing and the team that we’re putting together,” Kennard said. “I’m just grateful for this chance.”
LOS ANGELES -- A day can’t seem to go by without Leonard Williams landing on another preseason watch list. Announced as a candidate for the prestigious Bednarik, Nagurski and Outland awards, it’s hard to believe that the USC sophomore defensive lineman has just one season of collegiate play under his belt, but then again, that season was anything but typical of your average freshman.

A hulking physical presence whom USC head coach Lane Kiffin has often referred to as an “SEC-style” of lineman, Williams jumped right into the rotation at defensive tackle last fall, just a few months removed from his high school graduation from Daytona Beach (Fla.) Mainland. He ultimately started nine of the Trojans’ 13 games, compiling 64 tackles -- including 13.5 for losses -- on his way to 2012 Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors.

Leonard Williams
Joshua Weisberg/Icon SMILeonard Williams flattened a few QBs last season, but he refuses to rest on his freshman laurels.
After such a stellar showing then, it’s no wonder that Williams has received so much notice heading into the fall. But with his attention constantly focused on the future rather than the past, he’s made a concerted effort not to allow any of it to get to his head.

“It feels good to be getting that type of recognition, but at the same time I realize that’s based off of my freshman year, and I feel like I still have so much more to prove,” Williams said following one of the Trojans’ volunteer workouts earlier this week. “I’m ready to come out this season to do that.”

Williams’ even-keeled mindset reflects a maturity beyond his years, and it’s something that he’s gradually adopted due in large part to the influence of his defensive line coach, Ed Orgeron, who he says is always there to keep him grounded -- especially recently.

“Coach O and I have a lot of short talks,” Williams said. “He’ll walk by and just tell me to keep my head out of the magazines and not to buy into that kind of stuff. He knows that I’m a humble kid and that I work hard, so he just tells me to stay away from that, and that the rest will take care of itself.”

And judging by the way that he’s trained this summer, Williams has certainly taken that advice to heart. Emerging as one of the defensive line’s hardest workers, he’s upped the level of his workout regimen dramatically this June and July, and the difference in his performance and physical build has been noticeable.

“I feel really good right now,” Williams said. “I’ve been getting in two training sessions a day. We have the morning workout with the team, and then after my first class I come back out with a few of the guys and I get another one in. I’m 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds. I’m around the same weight I was this past spring, but my body has changed. I can feel it. My shoulders have broadened out more, my arms are bigger and I feel faster. I trimmed some of the fat and I gained more muscle and speed.”

Now lining up at end in defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s new 5-2 alignment, a more physically imposing Williams is sure to be a scary thought for opposing quarterbacks and running backs this fall. But he’s just one member of a defensive line corps that starred throughout the spring at USC, picking up right where they left off after a strong 2012 campaign in which they amassed 38 of the team’s 45 sacks.

Teaming with other key contributors such as outside linebackers Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard, nose tackle Antwaun Woods, as well as fellow defensive end George Uko, Williams believes the group is poised for an even more productive 2013 season thanks to the new aggressive defensive philosophy instilled by Pendergast, as well as the unique relationship that he and his linemates have developed over the course of the offseason.

“I feel like this scheme is made for the defensive line to make a lot more tackles,” Williams said. “It’s working good so far and everybody is liking it. And we have a brotherhood, and I feel like we’ve come together. We hang out off the field so much, and on the field we push each other, and there’s always competition with everybody, but at the same time we help each other out. We’re ready and we’re hungry to get after it.”

With less than three weeks to go before the start of fall camp, the Trojans’ defensive line unit won’t have to wait much longer before they get its wish. And with the belief that he still has a whole lot more to show -- even after having received so much preseason attention -- perhaps no one is more eager to put the pads on and hit the field than Williams.

“I’m not really nervous, it’s more of a ready feeling,” Williams said. “With all of the expectations, I want to prove them right. I just want to come out here and play, and I’m ready for the season to start.”

2013 USC slogan: Just 'prove' it 

June, 10, 2013
6/10/13
8:00
AM PT
LOS ANGELES - - “Prove it” pretty much sums up the various aspects of the 2013 USC Trojans, from hot-seat head coach Lane Kiffin to the players that he has entrusted regarding his future as CEO of one of the nation’s most storied football programs.

Here are some select Trojans that must “prove it” in 2013 for the old coach to sleep a lot better in the fall:


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