USC Trojans: Demetrius Wright

There were 34 Pac-12 players selected during the NFL draft, but there will be more than twice that many rookies in NFL training camps this summer. Shortly after the draft ended, the dominoes started falling and those who went undrafted started signing free-agent contracts.

The following list of undrafted free agent signings, which was compiled from various announcements and media reports, could change in the coming days:

Arizona
Arizona State
California
Note: K Vincenzo D'Amato will reportedly attend Green Bay's rookie minicamp.

Colorado
Oregon
Oregon State
Stanford
Notes: S Devon Carrington (Pittsburgh) and LB Jarek Lancaster (Oakland) will attend rookie minicamps.

UCLA
USC
Utah
Notes: DT LT Tuipulotu will attend Green Bay's rookie minicamp and C Vyncent Jones told the Deseret News he will attend minicamps for Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

Washington
Note: S Sean Parker will reportedly attend Washington Redskins rookie minicamp.

Washington State
Note: K Andrew Furney will attend Seattle Seahawks rookie minicamp.

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.

Wright looking for fitting finale

November, 29, 2013
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Demetrius Wright's first three years at USC didn’t quite go as planned. Arriving as a highly touted safety prospect from Corona (Calif.) in the class of 2010, he found himself buried on the depth chart from the get-go. Unable to dig himself out, he had collected a total of just 28 tackles in three seasons -- much of it on special teams.

Yet through it all, Wright remained upbeat.

[+] EnlargeWright
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesDemetrius Wright will have to continue his solid play facing UCLA's dynamic offense.
“I thought, ‘I’m at SC,’ and that’s a blessing by itself,” Wright said. “Just being here is something to be proud of.”

Still, Wright yearned to make an impact on the field.

And now, in his senior campaign, he’s doing just that.

Lining up as the Trojans’ starting free safety in nine games so far this fall -- including in each of the team’s last five victories -- Wright has developed into one of the secondary’s most reliable performers. A physical athlete who also provides veteran leadership, Wright has amassed 47 tackles and three pass break-ups on the year.

“It’s just been about me getting the opportunity to go out there,” Wright said. “Coach [Clancy] Pendergast and Coach [Ed] Orgeron giving me this chance has allowed me to show what I can do.”

It seems almost bittersweet, then, that with everything having finally come together for Wright, when he runs out of the Coliseum tunnel this Saturday, it will mark the last time he does so as a Trojan.

“I’m sure I’m going to have some strong emotions,” Wright said. “I know I’m going to feel it coming down the tunnel. It means a lot. A lot of guys don’t even finish their career here. It’s a deep tradition that I’m a part of, and it’s a real honor.”

Adding to those emotions is the fact that USC won’t be taking on just any opponent this weekend, but crosstown rival UCLA. With bragging rights and team pride on the line, it’s a game that is always marked by intensity and a spirited atmosphere. And with the Trojans falling to the Bruins 38-28 a year ago, it’s a matchup that can’t come soon enough for Wright.

“I’m looking forward to it to try to get some payback for last year,” Wright said, “to try to get that bad taste out of our mouth.”

But as Wright and the rest of the USC defense is well aware, it won’t be easy. The Bruins feature an offense that generates 36.6 points per game -- the No. 26 mark in the FBS -- and it’s directed by one of the nation’s most dynamic quarterbacks, Brett Hundley. The Bruins QB has proven equally dangerous with his feet as he is with his arm. He’s UCLA’s second-leading rusher (507 yards), while also ranking No. 2 in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency.

“He’s another dual-threat,” Wright said. “He’s a good quarterback, so we’ve got to try to contain him. It’s going to be a tough challenge, but we’re ready.”

If Wright and Co. are successful in their efforts to limit Hundley, it stands to reason that a victory would likely follow. And for a player who has already come so far, it would serve as the perfect ending to his final game at home.

“Everything is playing out for the best in my senior year so far,” Wright said. “It would mean the world to come away with a win.”

Five Trojans who have stepped up

November, 5, 2013
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As the Trojans continue to battle injuries while they prepare for the final stretch of the 2013 season, here are 5 players who have stepped up when called upon due to injuries to other players at their position.

[+] EnlargeDarreus Rogers
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY SportsAfter missing a few games with injury, USC wideout Darreus Rogers has caught 12 passes in his last three games.
RB Buck Allen: There is no bigger example of a player rising up and playing a key role than what Allen did last week in the win over Oregon State. There were flashes from Allen earlier in the season -- as well as his solid performance in fall camp -- but it was still a pleasant surprise for USC fans to see him get 16 carries for 133 yards and three touchdowns in such a critical game. With Justin Davis out for the season with ankle surgery and Tre Madden battling hamstring issues, the Trojans might be relying on a whole lot more from Buck in the coming weeks.

WR Darreus Rogers: The freshman wide receiver had injury issues of his own early in the season but got healthy just as Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor both were hurting as well. In a two-game stretch against Notre Dame and Utah, Rogers had 11 catches for 122 yards and was a reliable mid-range target.

TE’s Nathan Guertler: Through the first three years of his career, Guertler was a little-used walk-on offensive lineman who was known for his rugged style of play. In recent weeks, however, the Trojans have found themselves with serious depth issues at tight end so Guertler has thrown on a new jersey with a tight end number and played well against Oregon State as an extra blocker.

OLB J.R. Tavai: After beginning this season as a backup to Leonard Williams at defensive end, Tavai was moved to outside linebacker when Morgan Breslin went down with a hip injury. Tavai responded with a pair of double-digit tackle games with his usual relentless motor and strength. It shouldn’t be a surprise to see Tavai have such success considering he has played both inside and outside on the line in his USC career, but it is still a bonus for the Trojans to have a player who can move seamlessly between both spots.

DB Demetrius Wright: The Trojans came into the season with great depth at safety but it has been tested with the move of Josh Shaw to corner, the redshirt season for Gerald Bowman and various injury issues for Dion Bailey and Su’a Cravens. Wright has stepped in as an experienced reserve and provided steady play along with some big hits. Interim coach Ed Orgeron has mentioned Wright multiple times as a key contributor in recent weeks.

Ed Orgeron conference call highlights

November, 3, 2013
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Some selected quotes from USC head coach Ed Orgeron’s Sunday night conference call following the Trojans’ 31-14 victory over Oregon State.

Orgeron on the improved play of the USC secondary:

[+] Enlarge Josh Shaw
Jaime Valdez/USA TODAY SportsJosh Shaw's play at cornerback against Oregon State drew the praise of USC interim coach Ed Orgeron.
“I think we learned a big lesson at Arizona State in giving up the deep ball, and Clancy [Pendergast] made some great adjustments in the secondary. And we went back to some fundamentals about staying in lead position, staying in the post, making them throw the ball in front of us, and I think some of those things have been very well taught. The play of Demetrius Wright at safety has been excellent. Moving Josh Shaw to corner ... as you know he’s a very, very good football player.”

On the strong performance of the USC offensive line against Oregon State:

“I just think that we went back to the fundamentals. When we went and played against Notre Dame, I think playing on the road ... the crowd had an effect on us, on the silent count [and] we made some mistakes. We piped in the noise. ... I think it’s the second week in a row in which they’ve played together with Max [Tuerk] at right tackle. Talking to the offense, they felt that the communication with Max and Aundrey [Walker] was where it needed to be. I thought that John [Martinez] had one of his better games. And so, I just thought that the cohesiveness of the unit for the second week in a row helped, the communication helped, we simplified the game plan, the protection was all built on us being able to not get beat one on one, and I thought Clay [Helton] did a great job with his protections.”

On USC’s nine penalties for 68 yards:

“Obviously, some of the penalties are inexcusable ... some of them we really just have to fix. Some of them are right on the cusp where our guys are playing hard, and that’s going to happen. Penalties are going to happen ... they’re not excusable, but we’re not going to take the aggressiveness away from our players. We’re going to teach them the right technique, and do the best we can with it.”

On the development of Cody Kessler since Orgeron took over as interim coach:

“Just the style in which he plays, his tenacity, his moxie, his leadership. ... He’s got some stuff to him that I really like in a quarterback -- all the intangibles. I think he was 17-of-21 with the interception that was not a good decision. But the way he runs the offense, the way he wants to win ... he’s very competitive. Our guys believe in him.”

On the Trojans’ 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive after Oregon State’s game-tying pick-six in the second quarter:

“We talked at the beginning of the week, we said, ‘Listen, they’re a good football team. They’re going to make plays. At one point in the game we’re going to face adversity. It’s going to be OK. We’ll just stick together. No matter what happens, we stick together. Know that you’re going to be prepared well, you’re going to be ready, and we can overcome any obstacle they throw at us.’ And our guys did. When Cody came to the sideline, the defense was telling them, ‘Hey, it’s OK.’ And then they responded with that 10-play drive. I think that was a turning point in our new five-game season so far.”

On the 1-2 punch that developed in the rotation at tailback with Silas Redd and Javorius Allen:

“Give the credit to Tommie Robinson. I let the guys handle their rotations ... and Tommie does a great job. Tommie is one of the best running back coaches I’ve been around. What a tremendous job he’s done.”

On what impressed Orgeron about Allen’s performance:

“The way he’s running, and slashing, and leaning, and breaking tackles, and staying upright and moving forward. ... I think he’s gaining confidence every time he touches the ball. We’re seeing things that we haven’t seen from him, really. We’ve seen some things from him in practice that we really like. As you know, Buck [Allen] was on the scout team with me for two years, so I knew [him] probably the best on the staff. But when we had a change of coaches at that running back position, Tommie came in and kept saying, ‘Hey, I really like Buck Allen.’ And you know, when a coach likes you, and a coach wants you to play, wants to give you a chance, it means a lot to a young man. Buck has a heart of gold, and he’s like a lot of players on our team, he’s a great team guy, and I’m just happy to see him have success.”

On the confidence level of the team:

“I’ll say this, I know the confidence level on the football team and the coaching staff after the game was very high ... that we could go there and beat Oregon State in a hostile environment. Now the key is for us to still take it one game at a time and make improvement. One of the best things with Coach [Pete] Carroll’s teams was they got better in the month of November, and that’s my goal with the football team, is this week for us to take the next step and get better.”

On where Orgeron’s passion for USC comes from:

“I came here in 1998. I wanted to coach here since I was 6 years old, and the opportunity to come here and coach here has been everything I ever imagined and more. I’ve been to a lot of universities and a lot of great places, and I feel that it’s the best place in the world of coaching.”

Planning for success: USC

October, 31, 2013
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With the way the USC secondary has performed at times this season, facing the top-ranked passing attack in the country would figure to be a post-Halloween fright night for the Trojans.

That is exactly what awaits the USC defense on Friday night as Sean Mannion and the Oregon State offense come into the game averaging a nation-leading 420.8 yards per game. If guys such as Taylor Kelly from Arizona State and Tommy Rees from Notre Dame can have success throwing the ball against the Trojans, what will Mannion and company be expected to do?

[+] EnlargeShaw
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC is hoping that the move of Josh Shaw from safety to cornerback can help it defend Oregon State's top-ranked passing attack.
The Trojans will look to answer that question in two primary ways.

One is the move of Josh Shaw from safety back to cornerback. Shaw has seen time at both spots in his USC career, but the defense seems to perform better when he lines up at corner. Shaw will be joined in the starting lineup by Kevon Seymour, who has been playing well after battling injuries early in the season.

It will be important to watch how the move of Shaw impacts the rotation at safety, especially since the Trojans will be in nickel package for much of the game. The normal starters would be Dion Bailey and Su'a Cravens. Both are likely to play, but they have missed practice time this week due to injuries. USC fans can expect to see a lot of Demetrius Wright and Leon McQuay III after both played well last week against Utah.

The second key will be to get pressure on Mannion to disrupt his timing. That’s easy to say, but not always easy to do. Mannion averages nearly 50 pass attempts a game and completes close to 70 percent of them, throwing 30 touchdown passes to only three interceptions.

The Beavers’ offensive line had done a solid job protecting Mannion for the most part by allowing only nine sacks through the first seven games before allowing eight sacks to Stanford last week. The Trojans are No. 10 nationally in sacks but will be without their sack leader, as Morgan Breslin will miss the game with a hip injury. The Trojans will look to J.R. Tavai to fill in for Breslin. In the two games that Tavai has started for Breslin he has totaled 21 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Leonard Williams and Devon Kennard will also look to play big roles for the USC front seven.

Trojans show some grit under Orgeron

October, 29, 2013
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With three games under his belt as the interim coach of the Trojans, Ed Orgeron is continuing to put his stamp on the USC football program.

The Trojans sit at 2-1 on Orgeron’s watch, and it has certainly been an interesting ride. There was a gut-wrenching road loss to the Irish, a pair of home wins that might have lacked style points but were celebrated nonetheless, and then there were injuries. Lots and lots of injuries.

Through it all, the defense has continued to play hard for Orgeron, and the move of Josh Shaw to corner should plug what has been the biggest hole of the year. Orgeron’s handling of a shaky placekicking situation seems to have worked with Andre Heidari responding by making 4 of 5 field goals last week. Orgeron also has shown more of a willingness to use players lower on the depth chart -- in part due to the injuries -- and it has resulted in some good production from guys such as J.R. Tavai, Demetrius Wright and De'Von Flournoy..

[+] EnlargeEd Orgeron
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsEd Orgeron has infused the Trojans with a better attitude duringi his tenure.
There are still some issues that remain. The inconsistencies on offense are puzzling with a unit that can look so good on one drive and then stumble for long periods of time. At various times you can point the finger to play-calling, penalties, specific position groups or players or the aforementioned injury bug. Orgeron has done a good job of making sure injuries are not used as an excuse, but at some point he doesn’t need to say a word. The impact is obvious when you see just how many players are out right now.

That attitude of “no excuses” helps explain the biggest success Orgeron has seen so far. It really doesn’t have anything to do with the X’s and O’s. It has more to do with keeping the program above water through a shaky transition time. It’s hard to imagine how tough it is to change coaches in the middle of the season, especially when a change is being made because things aren’t going well.

Orgeron knows all too well how low the morale of the team was because he saw it every day and he knew that any key he had to finishing the season in a strong fashion was to get that attitude turned around. He has tried to change the climate, to return the energy and fun to the program and not let any negative feelings creep back in.

Have the results been perfect? No, but they haven’t been all that bad either. The Trojans might not have always played pretty football, but they have fought to the end in every game for this coach who shows how much he cares. And that has gone a long way to endear this team to the fans. The tone is noticeable on the message boards in support of the way this undermanned team has quietly shown some grit.

There might be no better example than the way Dion Bailey changed from street clothes to uniform and played the whole second half against Utah. Bailey is a warrior so for him to be out of action in the first place meant that he was legitimately hurt. But when Su’a Cravens went down at the end of the first half, Bailey realized the team needed him. That’s not an insignificant moment. It’s the kind that should be paid attention to because it shows how the players feel about playing for this coach.

For Orgeron, nothing will serve him or the Trojans better down the stretch of this season than a team of players willing to play hard for him. There is a lot of football remaining, and, if some of the walking wounded can return, then let the chips fall where they may.

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.

Notebook: Run sets up pass for Trojans

September, 17, 2013
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One of the most compelling stats from the Boston College game for the USC offense is the fact that the Trojans were able to achieve such good balance on a day when they put up over 500 yards of total offense.

USC ended the day with 521 yards of offense -- 257 on the ground and 264 through the air. But what makes it even more interesting is the fact that those 264 passing yards came on only 19 attempts. The Trojans don’t need to throw the ball 40 times a game to put up big numbers; the stats will come if the run game is setting the tone and if they are spreading the ball around with the right play calls.

[+] EnlargeJustin Davis
Chris Williams/Icon SMIUSC's Justin Davis ran for 96 yards and a touchdown vs. Boston College.
USC coach Lane Kiffin has done a commendable job so far this year of sticking with the commitment to the run as the Trojans have averaged more than 43 rushing attempts per game. It helps when the attempts are producing good yardage and that has been the case with the Trojans averaging 4.5 yards per rush, a number that figures to grow as the backs get more experience and the offensive line continues to gel. Think about it: the Trojans are running the ball well with two backs who had never carried the ball in a college game prior to this season.

On Saturday, the Trojans also came out and did a good job of spreading the ball around. The first six passes that Cody Kessler completed went to six different receivers. By the time the second quarter rolled around, the Trojans had shown the run and the ability to use other players so the Eagles decided to use single coverage on Marqise Lee. That was just a simple Kessler toss to the flat, Lee made one guy miss and that was all she wrote for an 80-yard touchdown.

What’s ironic is that while Lee might be the most explosive player in college football, the Trojans are actually very effective when his catches are limited. USC is 5-0 in games when Lee has two catches and 14-9 in all other Lee games. I doubt Kiffin is going to use that stat as an excuse to start reducing Lee’s touches but it shows how successful the team can be when Lee isn’t forced to carry too much of the load.

Dynamic duo: The Trojans couldn’t have asked for a much better start from the tailback duo of Tre Madden and Justin Davis. Both players have been impressive in, as mentioned above, their first college action at tailback. Madden has been the lead performer with his powerful yet smooth style that has allowed him to go for over 100 yards in each of the first three games to open the season. The last USC tailback to do that was Marcus Allen in his 1981 Heisman-winning season. The true freshman Davis is averaging more than 6.5 yards per carry with 172 yards on 26 carries. It will be interesting to see what will happen when projected starter Silas Redd returns from injury. The latest depth chart released on Sunday night for the Trojans shows Madden as the starter with no “or” designation next to his name, a clear sign that Kiffin is content with what he’s seen so far.

(Read full post)

A back-to-back secondary challenge 

August, 26, 2013
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LOS ANGELES -- With USC’s 2013 season opener at Hawaii just a handful of tropical sunsets away, all conversation regarding the inexperienced Trojans secondary seems as guarded as King Kamehameha's Palace.

There is the sense that the USC secondary has improved in fall camp from its unimpressive spring performance, but it’s sometimes difficult to measure growth when the Trojans’ defensive backfield is dissected daily by two future NFL wide receivers in Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor and two pro-bound tight ends in Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer.

While the USC receiving unit has the ability to make most collegiate secondaries appear hopelessly inadequate, the question remains: Has the Trojans’ secondary matured enough against the passing game in fall camp to transition from a liability to a contributing asset?

Roundtable: Top USC fall camp storyline 

August, 22, 2013
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Roundtable with WeAreSC staffers: What was the most notable storyline of fall camp?

Garry Paskwietz
The quarterback competition was the most dominant storyline of camp but that battle was expected. The shuffling of the starting line-up along the offensive line, however, was not expected.

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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.”


LOS ANGELES -- Coach Lane Kiffin put the USC Trojans through several situational drills Sunday to help prepare for game action.

“It was a real good day today,” Kiffin said. “Maybe not our best day in terms of performance, but we had some good situational work and we can learn a lot from that.

“We did red-zone stuff, some two-minute and four-minute drills, just to let our guys have an understanding of those points. We want them to pay attention to things like down and distance. We had one instance today with a third-and-long; we need to know to not give up a big play there. We can go watch the film and show them specific examples.”

There was also a bit of an announcement on the quarterback front, although it had little to do with naming a starter. Kiffin confirmed that it is officially a two-quarterback battle between Cody Kessler and Max Wittek as Kiffin told freshman Max Browne after the Saturday practice that he was out of the competition.

“Max took it like a professional,” Kiffin said. “He’s a competitor, though, and this doesn’t mean he is out of it as far as the whole season is concerned. It just means he’s out of it right now. Max is as advanced as any young quarterback. I wasn’t here when Matthew (Barkley) came in, but Browne has picked things up quickly. But now it’s a two-guy race.”

Sunday was a perfect example of why this is such a close competition. Both Kessler and Wittek made several big plays that showcased their abilities.

The first big play for Wittek was on a deep-in pattern to Darreus Rogers. A few plays later, Wittek stood tall in the pocket with a lot of pressure and he hit Rogers deep. The defensive backs collided and Rogers went for an 80-yard score. Later in the day in a red-zone drill, he hit Rogers with a fade pass for a touchdown.

[+] EnlargeAundrey Walker
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireAundrey Walker got some work in at right guard on Sunday.
Kessler got his day started with a scramble left and a shovel pass to a running back for a first down. It was an example of Kessler the improviser, something he does well. He later scrambled right and threw a strike on the run to Victor Blackwell for 20 yards. Kessler’s best throw came with the ball at his own 1-yard line. He dropped back into the end zone and threw a strike into the hands of Xavier Grimble, who had a step on Hayes Pullard. Once Grimble caught the ball, he outran Hayes for the score. Cody also hit Jahleel Pinner for a 20-yard touchdown in a red-zone drill.

There was a position switch of note, although Kiffin was clear to say it was not permanent at this point. Aundrey Walker has been out of action for the past several days, so Chad Wheeler has been taking reps with the first unit at left tackle. At the Saturday practice, reserve right guard Jordan Simmons left early and did not practice on Sunday. The coaches put Walker as the No. 2 right guard upon his return on Sunday, a position he played as a freshman. Walker said he made one mistake of crossing up the signals, but he also showed his impressive strength on one play when he shoved big Delvon Simmons out of the play.

“This is the time of year to look at switches like this,” Kiffin said. “It also speaks a little to the play of Chad Wheeler that we are even looking at this. If he wasn’t playing well, we wouldn’t do it.”

Marqise Lee spent a second day on the sidelines in uniform but no pads after suffering a bone bruise on Friday. Kiffin said they hope to get Lee out on the field soon, but he didn’t specific a time frame. Kiffin also talked about how important this time period is for Lee -- even though he is the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have things he can work on. Specifically, he mentioned the fact that Lee had four fumbles last year and they can work with him to focus on areas such as ball security.

[+] EnlargeDarreus Rogers
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsFreshman receiver Darreus Rogers is having a great camp, playing with confidence.
Nelson Agholor was also limited in action but, as noted above in the quarterback highlight plays, it was another terrific outing for Rogers. The freshman is big and strong and he’s playing with a lot of confidence right now.

Pinner is another young guy who is making an impression. The sophomore fullback has been getting a lot of reps in Soma Vainuku’s absence. (Vainuku returned to practice Sunday.) The wheel route from Kessler to Pinner was pretty as Pinner caught the ball in stride. That is going to be an effective weapon if he can contribute plays such as that in the passing game.

The big hit of the day came courtesy of Demetrius Wright. Wittek threw a pass from his end zone to walk-on wide receiver Robby Kolanz at the 18-yard line. Wright hit him hard right as the ball arrived, but Kolanz hung on for the catch.

Quinton Powell, who was recently moved from outside linebacker to inside linebacker, spent the day with the second unit behind Pullard. Michael Hutchings had been in that No. 2 spot to this point in camp.

One of the special-teams drills today was focusing on blocking field goals. Anthony Brown, Su’a Cravens and Leon McQuay each had blocks.

Jahlani Tavai (Manhattan Beach, Calif./Mira Costa) was in attendance Sunday. He’s a class of 2014 DE/OLB prospect and the brother of current USC defensive end J.R. Tavai.

Quotebook:

“I’m trying to provide depth to the line. I’m 100 percent ready to work after having a mild concussion last week. I’m willing to do anything I can to help and I trust coach Summers to put me in the right position. I was pretty comfortable today at right guard. I would actually feel comfortable at any spot really, well, maybe center wouldn’t work. I still feel left tackle is my position but I’m not surprised they wanted to take a look at this with Jordan [Simmons] being down.” – Aundrey Walker
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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 -- It’s been nearly four months since USC wrapped up spring ball, but that doesn’t mean that the team hasn’t been hard at work this summer. Here’s a look at 10 players who have stood out during the team’s volunteer workouts, giving every indication that they’ll hit the ground running when fall camp opens Saturday.

1. WR Marqise Lee (6-foot, 195 pounds, Jr.)
The fact that Lee -- the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner -- shined during the team’s passing sessions was hardly a surprise. What was somewhat eye-opening, however, was the way that the dynamic playmaker attacked each workout, competing with the focus of a player who was still fighting for a starting job. Showing tremendous hunger and drive, he looks ready to have another banner season as the headliner of the squad.

2. WR Nelson Agholor (6-0, 185, So.)
Building off an impressive spring in which he seized the No. 2 wide receiver job, Agholor continued to produce on a consistent basis this summer. Making highlight-reel catch after catch during the team’s 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 periods, there’s reason to believe that he can step right in and fill the shoes of Lee’s former star receiving mate, Robert Woods.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Williams
Ric Tapia/Icon SMILeonard Williams feels that he's better this year than he was a year ago, which is a scary thought for USC's opponents.
3. DE Leonard Williams (6-5, 290, So.)
On the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik, Nagurski and Outland awards, Williams appears poised to follow up a tremendous freshman campaign with an even bigger sophomore season. Having recently said that he feels stronger and faster than he was in 2012, the hulking Williams was dominant at times when the team came together for 11-on-11s this summer, both as a run stopper as well as a pass rusher.

4. S Josh Shaw (6-1, 205, RS Jr.)
The starter at cornerback for the Trojans’ final seven games in 2012, Shaw moved back to his more natural strong safety position this past spring and continued to line up there throughout June and July – looking more than at home, particularly after bulking up and adding 12 pounds to his frame. Showcasing fantastic ball-hawking skills during the workouts, he also emerged as a leader of the secondary. While he’s involved in a position battle with Su'a Cravens and Gerald Bowman, it’s hard to imagine him not playing a major part as a key piece in the USC defense in 2013.

5. QB Cody Kessler (6-1, 215, RS So.)
Embroiled in a highly publicized competition with Max Wittek and Max Browne for the No. 1 quarterback job, Kessler picked right up where he left off after a stellar spring and continued to stand out. Showing the same poise, accuracy and command in the pocket that he did this past March and April, he certainly appears prepared to make a strong case for that starting role.

6. S Dion Bailey (6-0, 200, RS Jr.)
After starring as the team’s starting strongside linebacker for the past two seasons, Bailey made the move back to free safety -- where he excelled in high school -- this summer and looked sharp from the get-go. In competition with Demetrius Wright and Leon McQuay III for the starting job, Bailey was at virtually every volunteer workout, playing fast and physical while also showing off some notable playmaking skills in coverage that the Trojans could certainly use this fall.

7. LB Hayes Pullard (6-1, 230 RS Jr.)
A seasoned veteran with 25 starts and 188 tackles to his credit, Pullard has emerged as an unquestioned leader of the team over the last five months and is one of those rare players who makes everyone around him better. A smart and heady performer, he also just might be in the best shape of his career, looking strong, fluid in his movement, and playing quick to the ball at each workout.

8. TE Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick (6-4, 255, So.)
Originally making a name for himself in the spring after filling in for standout tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer -- who both battled injuries -- Cope-Fitzpatrick certainly didn’t let up this summer. The most consistent attendee at the tight end position for the throwing sessions, he caught everything thrown his way, showing off soft hands and providing the quarterbacks with a big target downfield. With only three scholarship tight ends on the current roster, you can be sure that Cope-Fitzpatrick will see the field this season in at least some capacity. The good news is that he appears up for the challenge.

9. FB Jahleel Pinner (5-11, 240, So.)
Pointed out by running backs coach Tommie Robinson as the most improved member of his group in the spring, Pinner continued to make noticeable strides this summer. Strong and athletic, he was especially impressive over the course of the last three weeks, making some nice receptions coming out of the backfield. That's more than welcome news for USC coach Lane Kiffin, who said back in April that he wanted to see more offensive production out of the fullback position.

10. QB Max Wittek (6-4, 235, RS So.)
Missing some of the early summer workouts after coming down with mononucleosis, Wittek eventually rounded back into form and finished the last month of passing sessions off strong. Putting his trademark rifle of an arm on display, he also worked hard to correct some of the errors in decision-making that plagued him at times during his two starts in 2012.

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