USC Trojans: Devon Kennard
It has been well-chronicled how dysfunctional the Trojans defense was last year. The number of points in games surrendered to the likes of Oregon (62), Arizona (39), UCLA (38), and even Syracuse (29) was enough to even make an onion cry, let alone USC fans.
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Compiling 38 sacks combined this past fall, the stellar play of the defensive line was one of the highlights in an otherwise up-and-down season for the Trojans. Losing just one key contributor from that group in defensive end Wes Horton, expectations were sky high for the unit heading into spring ball, yet questions remained. After all, with the switch from the team's previous 4-3 alignment to a 5-2 look under new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, many wondered if the Trojans had the personnel and talent to pull it off.
But after 15 practices in March and April, it's safe to say those questions have been erased. Playing fast, aggressive and quick to the ball, the defensive line established itself as the heart and soul of the defense and there's reason to believe they're on the verge of an even more impressive 2013 campaign.
Battle at nose
Still, the competition isn't over just yet. In fact, Woods currently shares the top spot on the post-spring depth chart with Cody Temple, who made a big statement with his play despite missing the majority of the spring to injury. Also showing promise was early entry freshman Kenny Bigelow. Possessing an imposing 6-foot-3, 295-pound build and unique physical skills, he was dominant at times but also inconsistent. A summer in the weight room and out on the field working on his conditioning could pay big dividends, and he just might factor heavily into the discussion here.
Ready to shine on the edge
Making a flawless adjustment from playing with a hand down in the old 4-3 set as defensive ends to standing up as outside linebackers in the new 5-2 look, both Devon Kennard and Morgan Breslin were standouts in the spring.
Kennard's performance, in particular, was more than welcomed for Orgeron and Co. Showing no ill effects of the torn pectoral muscle that forced him to miss last season, he was a major thorn in the side of the offensive line from his SAM linebacker spot. Breslin, who amassed a team-leading 13 sacks in 2012, looked solid at Predator linebacker, most notably in the spring game, when he came up with 3.5 sacks. With the Trojans now possessing two potential threats off the edge, it should be interesting to see what kind of impact they make on the passing attacks of the opposition this fall.
A star in the making
Nobody made a more eye-popping first-year impression for the Trojans last season than Leonard Williams. Starting nine games at the three-technique defensive tackle spot, he amassed 64 tackles and eight sacks on his way to 2012 Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors. The best part, however, is that Williams is still getting better -- a fact made evident this spring.
Standing 6-foot-5 with his weight up to 290 pounds, Williams was an incredibly disruptive force throughout the slate of practices, giving the defense what Kiffin has often referred to as an SEC-style lineman on the interior. Having shown so much promise already, there's certainly reason to believe he'll continue to develop this offseason, which would mean more postseason accolades in 2013.
Enough in reserve?
The performance of the Trojans' starting defensive line was one of the leading stories of the spring to be sure, but an element of uncertainty still exists when it comes to whether or not Orgeron's group has the kind of depth necessary to spearhead the defense through the 2013 season, particularly after adding just two new faces to the unit in the most recent recruiting class in Bigelow and outside linebacker Quinton Powell.
The return from injury of J.R. Tavai midway through the spring workouts, as well as the emergence of somewhat of a surprise in Charles Burks, did provide reason for optimism at end behind Williams and George Uko, however. The addition of Greg Townsend Jr. -- who missed the entire spring while recuperating from 2012 knee surgery -- also will give the team a boost here in the fall. Temple and Bigelow, too, should team up well with Woods to provide stability at the nose position.
On the outside, Jabari Ruffin asserted himself as a potential name to watch down the line, and Kevin Greene and Marquis Simmons also had their moments.
Still, there's little doubt Orgeron would prefer more bodies here, and the Trojans are sure to load up on defensive linemen in the next recruiting class. For now, though, USC will move forward with what is a somewhat thin but talent-laden group.
MVP -- QB Cody Kessler: Nobody entered the spring with more to prove, and Kessler made a huge statement by rising to the occasion. Performing on a consistently high level from practice No. 1 all the way to practice No. 15, he showed that while he might not have the size of his two counterparts in the quarterback battle -- Max Wittek and Max Browne -- what he does possess is grit, a remarkable football IQ and the ability to simply get the job done. Referred to as a ‘gamer’ by USC head coach Lane Kiffin on more than one occasion, he was particularly stellar in the team’s scrimmages, putting up big numbers and never throwing a single interception. More than that, he emerged as a leader who the rest of the team really seemed to respond to. -- Johnny Curren
Top offensive performer -- WR Nelson Agholor: With the No. 2 receiver job up for grabs, Agholor asserted himself early as the clear choice. Building off a productive freshman campaign, he shined throughout the spring, and a practice didn’t seem to go by without the Tampa (Fla.) Berkeley Prep product coming up with at least one highlight play that caught everyone’s attention. Showcasing game-breaking ability to go along with reliable hands, he just might allow everyone to get over the loss of Robert Woods just a tad bit sooner than imagined. -- JC
Recapping the spring game: “There were 42 scholarship players available on Saturday. I was impressed with how accurate the quarterbacks were downfield. Cody Kessler did not throw an interception in any of the five spring scrimmages. The usual suspects, Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor, had big days but it was also good to see Victor Blackwell have a productive day as well. There were four guys who stood out on defense. Leonard Williams was dominant and caused a lot of issues for the offense. Lamar Dawson continues to be one of the most improved players on the team. Devon Kennard really played well the last two weeks and Morgan Breslin continues to find ways to make plays.”
The decision to list Kevin Graf and Chad Wheeler as co-starters at right tackle: “Chad’s injury stopped what was a great spring for him, he was tough and physical so we’re going to put him over there with Kevin and let them battle it out. I really want to see both of them have a great summer and fall camp. Kevin had an up-and-down spring, but Mike Summers has done a great job of addressing him and planning for how to get better.”
The assimilation of four new assistant coaches: “It was like that feeling you have when a first-year staff comes together. Everybody is excited to be there. You don’t have any preconceived notions of players, so that helps create a real positive atmosphere. Our players felt that. It was a fresh start for the players and that creates competition. There was a lot of energy. Half the staff wasn’t here last year, so that helped us in terms of being able to move past last year. I thought last spring we did a lot of maintaining because we had so many key guys returning, but this spring there was more competition.”
Offensive line progression: “We need to continue to get better on the offensive line. We made progress but we have a long way to go. We need to have the ability to run the ball and force defenses to play honest against the run.”
On Darreus Rogers being listed ahead of Victor Blackwell on depth chart: “We think Darreus has some really good upside there. Victor has made some plays but we need for him to be more consistent and he knows that.”
The quarterbacks: "We’re in the process of going back and watching all of the tape from spring ball to dig in and really evaluate these guys. I do feel like all three of these guys are really good college quarterbacks and not everyone has that. We’ve got three guys who can run our system. The two Max’s are obviously bigger guys, but Cody showed this spring that he can run everything when he’s in there, there was no need to change.”
Most improved player on offense: “Chad Wheeler was on his way before his injury. You would have to put Jahleel Pinner in that conversation, he’s been real physical.”
Nelson Agholor: “Nelson probably could have had a bigger role last year but he was behind the Biletnikoff winner and the runner-up for the Biletnikoff from the year before. He’s worked so hard for this. We’ve been real fortunate to sign three such wonderful competitors three years in a row; you don’t always get that at the receiver spot. Robert set the bar, Marqise learned from that and now Nelson is showing it, too. It’s really cool.”
The cornerbacks: “Devian Shelton and Kevon Seymour have been hurt, even going back to last fall, so we haven’t had a long time to evaluate them. Both have good upside from a height/weight/speed standpoint. Chris Hawkins did some good things but he’s a puppy, a guy who is basically still a high school senior. We could have just put “OR” for everybody at corner on the depth chart; we’ve got a lot of work to figure things out there. You could see Josh (Shaw) end up there.”
Roster numbers in the fall: “Right now I think we will be at 69 players. We were at 70 with George Farmer, but that drops us down to 69. We could sign someone before fall. It’s happened before, but right now that’s where we expect to be.”
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The news was more dire for Farmer after Kiffin confirmed the earlier media reports of a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, which will force him to miss the 2013 season. For Cravens, he has a torn meniscus in his right knee and will undergo surgery Friday. The injury is the same as the one suffered by Silas Redd. Cravens is expected to miss 4-6 weeks and will be back in plenty of time for fall camp.
The Trojans entered the Thursday practice session with 20 players out of action because of injury and two more left practice – Torin Harris and Cyrus Hobbi.
“I don’t see any way we could practice like this in the fall. We wouldn’t be able to play a game,” Kiffin said. “Of the 22 guys who ended up being out today, 18 of them are scholarship players. With the roster reductions we already have we would not be able to give up that many players. We will start fall camp practicing this way, but I don’t think we will end fall camp this way.”
There was some good news on the injury front as Marqise Lee returned, albeit in a limited role, after missing two-and-a-half weeks with a knee injury. Lee seemed to be running fine with no major issues but he was held out of contact team drills. Kevon Seymour and Jordan Simmons also returned to action.
“Marqise was back, which was obviously good to see,” Kiffin said. “He basically took part in the first hour of practice and we’ll add to him as we go.”
George Uko was out today and J.R. Tavai took his spot with the first unit at defensive end. During the final team drill, Aundrey Walker was out and Max Tuerk had moved to center with Hobbi out, so the first unit left side of the line was walk-on Nathan Guertler at tackle and Giovanni Di Poalo at guard.
With Farmer out, that means opportunities for players such as Victor Blackwell and De’Von Flournoy along with first-year players Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell. Kiffin also made sure to note the high level of play from Nelson Agholor this spring when discussing the receiver group.
The time to wonder is over. Kennard is back -- and healthy as ever -- as the Trojans transition to an odd-front defense under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
"I wasn't out there, but I know what it felt like," Kennard said. “It makes me appreciate what I can do for this team even more now. You have to let what happened last year go. But you still want to keep part of it in the back of your mind. You always want to play with a chip on your shoulder.”
Regardless of who head coach Lane Kiffin hired to replace his father, Monte, as defensive coordinator, he knew he wanted to move away from the 4-3.
“It was probably the direction we were going to go regardless of who it was because of the conference,” Kiffin said. “College football has changed. Our conference has changed and it's dynamic, and it changes from week to week. There is so much perimeter running that goes on, whether it's quarterback, whether it's fly sweeps, whether it's backs, the ball is on the edge a lot -- a lot more than it's ever been. The 3-4 helps you with that because your guys are standing up on the edge and you're keeping the ball on the inside and limiting the perimeter plays.”
In the new scheme, Kennard and second-team all-league defensive lineman Morgan Breslin will become hybrid outside linebackers. Expect both to spend most snaps in a 2-point stance with the opportunity to rush, set an edge or drop back into coverage. It’s not totally foreign to Kennard since he would sometimes drop into coverage in the old scheme’s zone-blitz package.
“They could both rush, they could both drop back, one of them could do the other. It’s a very versatile defense,” said Pendergast, formerly of Cal. “This defense is really going to showcase their talents.”
The new scheme also means a position switch for linebacker Dion Bailey. Despite being a very thick 210 pounds, he’s better suited roaming the secondary. Last year he was more of a hybrid nickel/linebacker and tallied 80 tackles, including eight for a loss.
“We’ll be able to disguise what we’re doing a lot more pre-snap,” Bailey said. “We can move more people around and do a lot more with the personnel that we have. I think it’s a much better fit.
“For me, personally, I think it’s more of a natural position for me. I can better utilize my abilities, and it puts me in space where I can make plays. I really like it.”
Despite their struggles against the run, the Trojans ranked fourth in the nation last season in sacks per game, which is impressive. But they were still third in the league behind Stanford and Arizona State -- two other teams that have had great success with odd fronts. The hope is that with Kennard’s return, and putting Breslin in position to improve on his 13 sacks last season, the Trojans can wreak havoc at the point of attack -- not just the backfield.
The scheme is set. The coaches and players are in place. All that’s needed is the mentality to run it with brutal efficiency. In three of USC’s losses last season, they never led (Oregon, UCLA, Notre Dame). But the defense surrendered second-half leads against Stanford and Arizona, and they were tied at the half against Georgia Tech.
“We got out-willed in the fourth quarter too many times last year,” Bailey said. "That’s something we need to take in and learn from. It's not how you start, it's how you finish … we almost need to get back to how we were playing when we were on sanctions. Not playing for anybody else -- just playing for each other.”
Through the first two weeks of spring practice, here are five things we've learned about the USC football team:
1. Cody Kessler is playing like a man looking for a starting spot: It was only a few short months ago, as the Trojans prepared for the Sun Bowl, that Max Wittek was the odds-on choice to replace Matt Barkley as the USC quarterback. Kessler responded to that talk by coming out strong in spring and taking advantage of a minor knee injury to Wittek by performing well with the extended reps. In the two spring scrimmages, Kessler is a combined 25 of 34 for 353 yards and one touchdown.
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Cody Kessler (6-1, 215, RS So.) OR Max Browne (6-5, 215, Fr.); Max Wittek (6-foot-4, 235 pounds, RS So.)
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“I thought the offensive line responded well today,” Kiffin said. “We had some issues on Tuesday with fumbled snaps and false starts, but the players came out today with good energy along the line of scrimmage.”
Kiffin also noted the continued strong play of quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Max Browne, who have been forced to take extra snaps this week as the only two available players at the position.
Kessler hit Nelson Agholor against coverage from Morgan Breslin and the play went for a long gain. Browne had his best practice of spring and it included a pair of touchdown passes to Darreus Rogers. There was also a nice sequence for Browne where he had a pass attempt broken up by Leon McQuay III but he came right back on the next play for a nice completion to Buck Allen.
Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood
It was a breakout day for Rogers. The first touchdown from Browne came on a short throw that he caught and put a spin move to get away from Ryan Dillard for a 20-yard score. The second touchdown was the highlight play of the day on a 40-yard pass reception at the goal line. He also had an impressive play with a sideline catch where it took multiple defenders to bring him down.
“Darreus Rogers had an unbelievable day,” said Kiffin.
Bucking the trend
Buck Allen hasn’t made a ton of noise during his USC career so far, but he’s quietly put together a pair of strong practices in a row. Allen finished the practice off right, first with a 4-yard TD run and then with a 20-yard touchdown dash off the left side on the final play of the day.
Marqise Lee and Max Wittek continued to sit out practice with the knee injuries they suffered last weekend, and Kiffin said both will wait until the first Tuesday practice after spring break (March 27) to get back on the field. Silas Redd and Chad Wheeler both left the Thursday practice with knee injuries, while George Farmer had a shoulder injury. There was no word on the status of those three. Kevon Seymour sat out with an ankle injury and is day to day.
Xavier Grimble was named the MVP of the day with Rogers a close second. Kiffin gave a lot of praise to Grimble as a guy who is on his way to becoming a potentially great player. Grimble wasn’t even supposed to practice due to a rib injury but he went out and performed well, most notably in a blocking drill against the safeties.
Other highlight plays
Anthony Sarao and Lamar Dawson both had pass deflections. Dawson also added a big hit on Justin Davis. Kiffin said Dawson has put together five great practices in a row after changing his body in the off-season.
Sarao, Devon Kennard and Charles Burks each had a sack.
Leonard Williams had a pass deflection.
Notables in attendance
Nico Falah, Damien Mama, Rey Maualuga and several players from Upland HS including safety Jeff Farrar, QB Tyler Hilinski and incoming ninth-grade receiver Nathan Telfer (no relation to TE Randall).
“The competition between Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer is good, no issues between the two of them. It’s kind of like how it was with Robert (Woods) and Marqise. They are really close, and they just push each other. They are almost exactly the same size, Randall is five pounds heavier and tests better.” -- Lane Kiffin
“This has probably been my best day here, but obviously still making a few mental errors. We slowed it down today and didn't install that much, so I was able to go out there and play. I felt like today I was the most comfortable and I think it showed in our offense as a whole." -- Max Browne
What's the biggest question that has been answered?
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“It was great to see the defense come out with such a physical mindset and execute so well,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “The defensive coaches have done a good job of getting them ready through the first week. I thought things were really good up front, Hayes Pullard was strong in the middle, and Lamar Dawson was the MVP of the day because he was so aggressive against the run.”
Dawson led the way with six tackles, including two tackles for loss, while Morgan Breslin and Su’a Cravens each added four tackles. All four of Breslin’s tackles went for a loss, while Pullard added two tackles for loss. The defense also had five sacks.
The offense was without quarterback Max Wittek and wide receiver Marqise Lee, both of whom were held out of the scrimmage after suffering knee injuries during the drills session before the scrimmage. Wittek's knee was rolled up on while he held during a place-kicking drill, and Lee came down hard after making a catch in the end zone. Both stayed on the sideline for the rest of the day -- Wittek had an ice pack on his knee -- and Kiffin said they will get checked out by team doctors.
The offense struggled with multiple fumbles during the quarterback-center exchange as new center Max Tuerk continues to adjust to his new position.
Max Wittek (6-foot-4, 235 pounds, RS So.) OR Cody Kessler (6-1, 215, RS So.) OR Max Browne (6-5, 215, Fr.)
Silas Redd (5-10, 200, Sr.); D.J. Morgan (5-10, 190, RS. Jr.) OR Tre Madden (6-1, 220, RS So.) OR Javorious Allen (6-1, 210, RS So.) OR Justin Davis (6-1, 215, Fr.)
With a full season under his belt at USC, Redd looks comfortable and focused as the starter. Morgan showcased a couple of big plays this week, while Madden looked much sharper than you might imagine a year removed from his knee injury. Davis, meanwhile, has been perhaps the hit of the early-entrant group so far, making the most of his limited carries in practice.
Soma Vainuku (6-0, 250, RS. So.); Jahleel Pinner (5-11, 225, So.)
Two of the team's hardest workers, Vainuku and Pinner alternated as the team’s primary fullbacks. It remains to be seen, however, if they’ll take on a bigger role in the offense.
It’s easy to notice the upbeat style of play through the first two days of USC spring ball, and it was evident on Thursday with a team drill that featured some explosive plays from the offense.
The team drill started off strong for the defense, as the offense was backed up near its own goal line on the south end of Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field, and the defense had some stops, led by the interior front with Antwaun Woods, George Uko and Leonard Williams.
After the offense switched to the north end of the field, however, things began to change. Max Wittek hit Nelson Agholor for a short gain, and Agholor showed his burst of speed to outrun the secondary and make it a long gain. With the ball placed again deep in the offense's end, Silas Redd took a handoff and went 85 yards down the left sideline before being driven out at the 10-yard line by Kevon Seymour.