USC Trojans: Josh Shaw

As the Trojans move into the fourth week of spring ball drills, the coaches are still searching to balance the desire for physical play with the need to keep players healthy on a reduced roster.

[+] EnlargeShaw
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThe USC defense is likely to look much different in the fall with injured players like Josh Shaw back in action.
When Steve Sarkisian set the agenda for spring ball, he made it clear that one of his goals was to have all the injured players healthy for the fall. With injured veterans like Leonard Williams and Josh Shaw, the decision was made to sit them out entirely. And there was a lot of caution shown in terms of bringing other players back as well.

Sarkisian chose to focus a lot of attention this spring on the installation of new schemes on both sides of the ball, including morning walk-throughs and in-practice teaching sessions that would allow those injured players the opportunity to mentally stay with the rest of the team.

One of the trade-offs has been fewer opportunities for live tackling during practice, a concession that no coach wants to make but that sometimes can come into play. There were a few dozen live plays during a recent practice session at the Coliseum -- including a spirited Oklahoma drill -- and other isolated physical sessions, but they have been limited in scope.

“You would love to practice [live tackling] all the time, but you have to be smart about the way you do it,” USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “You work on tackling in controlled environments where you limit the number of bodies potentially going to the ground, you work that way in one-on-one drills, you work it on bags. But when you get to go live, you have to go. There’s nothing like live tackling.”

It’s not like the Trojans don’t have plenty of opportunities to tackle if they want. Through nine days of spring ball, the new up-tempo offensive system has run more than 1,000 plays (more than 2,000 if you include morning walk-throughs), and there is an added benefit there as the defensive players must also adapt quickly to the new pace of play.

“The offense can have the advantage late in the game with the up-tempo,” Sarkisian said. “That’s why we practice this way, to prepare for games.”

That late-game advantage would be evident based on what Wilcox has seen so far from his defense.

“We have a tendency to start practices fast and we play well for the first half, but we don’t do as well in the second half,” Wilcox said. “That’s where we have to continue to emphasize finishing strong because the end of the game is when you get up there in play count. When you get to plays 100 to 120, that’s when you really need to sustain things mentally and that’s something we’ve got to work on. The effort has been good, we just have to get better. I would have thought through nine days that we would have it down pat and look great, but I don’t know if that’s reality.”

It would be natural to expect things to look better in the fall, especially when so many of the injured players return. In addition to starters such as Williams and Shaw, there are also players with starting experience like J.R. Tavai, Lamar Dawson and Anthony Brown who are expected back in action.

In the meantime, other players will continue to fill in during the last two weeks of spring to get as much experience as they can.

“With the injured guys out, there’s some guys taking reps right now who won’t be getting reps in the fall,” Wilcox said. “But that’s OK, we need everybody and you’re always looking to build on your depth. It’s a chance for those guys to show us something to maybe earn a bigger role.”

Offense shines on Day 2

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
9:56
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After the defense stood out in the team’s first practice session under Steve Sarkisian on Tuesday, the new USC head coach said the offense stole the show on Day 2 of the Trojans’ spring practice.

“I thought the offense created some explosive plays in the second practice which weren’t there in the first practice,” Sarkisian said. “And so, like I’m used to on this practice field, one side of the ball can get the better of the other on one day, and then you come back the next practice and the other side can get the better of them. I thought the defense had a great Tuesday [and] I thought the offense came out and created some explosive plays today. It was kind of their turn.”

In particular, it was the play of quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Max Browne -- who are entrenched in a position battle -- that really caught the eye of Sarkisian. Directing the team’s brand new uptempo, shotgun-based offense, both signal callers split the bulk of snaps during the 7-on-7 and team periods, with each contender completing deep passes downfield on a number of occasions.

“I thought they played well today,” Sarkisian said. “I think that they’re starting to recognize the speed coming out of Tuesday’s practice of how fast things go, and how quickly they have to recognize fronts and coverages, and making those quick decisions -- similar to how a point guard would have to make quick decisions on a basketball court. And I thought both Cody and Max were much better at that today.”

And even though the third member of the quarterback competition, early entry freshman Jalen Greene, didn’t see as much action as his counterparts, he came up with a big play of his own when he completed a 35-yard touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone to Darreus Rogers, and it certainly didn’t go unnoticed by Sarkisian.

“[He took] a little less reps, but to Jalen’s credit he goes in and throws a touchdown pass,” Sarkisian said. “He’ll get plenty of reps. We’ve got 13 more [practices] to go, so he’ll get his time. We just felt like it was important to get Cody and Max some extended reps in today’s practice.”

Cope-Fitzpatrick makes a big impression

No player benefitted more from the performance of the quarterbacks than junior tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. With Randall Telfer sidelined due to injury, the former Rocklin (Calif.) Whitney standout is currently the only active scholarship tight end available for the Trojans. To his credit, he’s taken advantage of the increased opportunity this spring, particularly on Thursday.

Showcasing soft hands, Cope-Fitzpatrick hauled in a number of passes all over the field, and he was especially in sync with Kessler. With Sarkisian having shown at Washington that he isn’t afraid to use the tight end as a major weapon in his offense, he was encouraged by what he saw from Cope-Fitzpatrick on Thursday.

“In this system we love to utilize the tight end, and a lot of time multiple tight ends,” Sarkisian said. “I think Jalen has really focused himself on trying to come out and have a good spring. I thought he was really attentive and locked in on Tuesday, and then he got opportunities today to make plays down the field, and he made them. I think that’s what he’s capable of. He’s an athletic guy, he’s got tremendous ball skills and I think he’s seen a real opportunity to step up and make plays and he’s doing it.”

Notes and quotes

• Following practice defensive back Josh Shaw, who is still sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot and is wearing a boot, said that he will line up at cornerback in 2014.

J.R. Tavai saw extensive time with the first-team defense at defensive end on Thursday, where Kenny Bigelow lined up for the majority of Tuesday’s practice. Tavai had run primarily with the second unit on the outside at rush end on Tuesday.

• Among those in attendance were Class of 2014 signees Viane Talamaivao, Damien Mama, Chris Brown and Ajene Harris, Class of 2015 defensive lineman Rasheem Green and USC and NFL greats Keyshawn Johnson and Ronnie Lott.

• The next practice is on Saturday, but the team will be in shorts, shoulder pads and helmets, and it will not be in a scrimmage setting as some might have assumed. In fact, Sarkisian said that he isn’t sure that the team will hold any scrimmages in the traditional sense this spring.

“I don’t know if we’re ever going to come out and have a two-hour scrimmage. I don’t know if we benefit from that,” he said. “But there will be portions of our practice that will be live, that will be scrimmage oriented, and I think that will allow us to tackle, it will allow us to cut block, it will allow us to learn from those things, but not be so overly fatigued to where guys can start getting injured.”

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LOS ANGELES -- The USC Trojans returned to the practice field for the opening day of spring practice, and coach Steve Sarkisian said the impact of the up-tempo style was evident throughout the day.

“I really liked the energy and focus that our players and coaches showed,” Sarkisian said. “We were by no means perfect, and there is plenty to learn from, but it was just awesome to get on the field finally with these guys.

“It’s such a long process after you get hired, you need to fill the staff and finish off the recruiting season, so it was nice to walk through Goux Gate and onto the practice field. We ran 120 plays today, which was similar to what we ran on the first day at Washington when we installed the up-tempo system. I thought the players responded really well to that, we only had one time period where we didn’t meet our quota of plays.”

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsSteve Sarkisian said the Trojans weren't perfect in their first spring practice, but he liked what he saw.
Sarkisian also noted one change from his time as an assistant at USC under Pete Carroll, as his offices are now in the John McKay Center as opposed to Heritage Hall.

“It’s a much shorter walk to the field now,” Sarkisian said with a smile. “I didn’t really have time to think too much about anything. I left the locker room and went up the All-American walk, made a right and, boom, I was at the field.”

Once he got to the field, there was plenty to note about the performance of his team during the first practice session of the spring.

The Trojans have an opening at center, which will be critical to fill on the offensive line, and Max Tuerk was working with the first unit. Tuerk has started games for USC at left tackle, right tackle and left guard and he was projected to move to RT this year to take over for Kevin Graf. Instead, Tuerk will get a look at center, where he played in limited action last spring before being moved back to guard due to struggles with the center/quarterback exchange.

“Max is a very bright young man and talented,” Sarkisian said. “There is a lot of work to be done on the line and we will take a look at options to see how things develop. It was a good day though, he didn’t snap the ball over anyone’s head and there were no grounders.”

Notes: Leonard Williams (shoulder) and Josh Shaw (stress fracture) were among those who did not participate on the defensive side of the ball. ... On offense, Justin Davis, George Farmer and Steven Mitchell all received limited work in walk-through sessions as they return from injury. ... Max Browne made an early impression in the quarterback competition with a pair of deep passes, including a touchdown to George Katrib. … Chris Hawkins had an interception and a pass break-up. ... Among the guests in attendance were Adoree' Jackson, Damien Mama, Ricky Town, Rahshead Johnson and former USC tailback Justin Fargas.

Q&A with Max Tuerk

Q: When were you told you’d be taking reps at center?

A: I was told by Coach [Tim] Drevno a little bit before we started meetings, probably about a month ago.

Q: What are your thoughts on the move?

A: Whatever is best for the team. I’m a big team player. I’ve moved around a lot in the last two years, so moving to center is a new, awesome thing that I can do.

Q: Is it better to not have the quarterback under center?

A: Yeah, I like the shotgun better.

Q: Is this a permanent move to center?

A: Whatever the team needs. If they need me to play center, then yes I will play center.

Q: Is the comfort level more than a year ago when you tried to play center? How is it different?

A: Yes, definitely. I just have a lot more confidence. We are all picking up the offense pretty good. It’s good to learn the offense and then start at center. It’s a little harder to start at a different position and then re-learn the offense at center.

Q: Is there one position you like better than the other in terms of blocking people?

A: I like them all.

Q: How was the speed today with the no huddle?

A: It was a lot of plays. It was good though.

Q: Was it easier to make the move when you saw how Marcus Martin flourished at this spot the last few years?

A: Yeah I definitely learned from Marcus. Marcus was a great player. He’s competing in pro day tomorrow so I’m gonna go watch him. He’s an awesome guy, awesome leader, so anything I can do to be like he was.
Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 continues with the safeties.

Arizona: The Wildcats have a lot of experience at safety with a combined 78 starts between Jourdon Grandon, Tra'Mayne Bondurant and Jared Tevis. All three of their backups on the AdvoCare V100 Bowl depth chart -- Anthony Lopez, William Parks and Jamar Allah -- also return.

Arizona State: Damarious Randall returns as one of the more talented safeties in the conference after a season in which he finished tied for third on the team with 71 tackles. Marcus Ball is a strong candidate to eventually earn the job next to Randall, but he's still working his way back from a clavicle injury that cost him the 2013 season. Laiu Moeakiola, who appeared in 10 games last year as a reserve, James Johnson, Jayme Otomewo and Ezekiel Bishop are other names to watch.

California: Cal started five different players at safety last year and four of them -- Michael Lowe, Cameron Walker, Avery Sebastian and Damariay Drew -- will be back. Sebastian began the year in the starting lineup and had an interception and 10 tackles before suffering a season-ending Achilles tear in the first half of the season opener. Look for him to regain his starting job next to Lowe.

Colorado: The Buffs need to replace SS Parker Orms, who had 26 career starts and 10 last season, but FS Jered Bell will return. All three of the players competing to replace Orms -- Marques Mosley, Terrel Smith and Tedric Thompson -- have started at least three games. Smith redshirted last season after he underwent shoulder surgery and has 19 career starts.

Oregon: The Ducks lose both Brian Jackson and Avery Patterson from a secondary that has consistently been among the nation's best. Fifth-year senior Erick Dargan, Patterson's high school teammate, looks to slide into his first full-time starting role after three years of meaningful contributions on both special teams and reserve duty. Opposite him, Issac Dixon is the presumed favorite with Tyree Robinson and Reggie Daniels also in the mix.

Oregon State: The Beavers have both Ryan Murphy and Tyrequek Zimmerman back for their third year as starters, which should help soften the blow of losing CB Rashaad Reynolds. A few others to watch are sophomore Cyril Noland-Lewis, Justin Strong, Brandon Arnold, Zack Robinson and walk-on Micah Audiss, who was No. 2 behind Zimmerman in the season-ending depth chart.

Stanford: Ed Reynolds' early departure for the NFL creates the one real unknown spot for the Cardinal. Two former offensive players -- QB Dallas Lloyd and WR Kodi Whitfield -- are in the competition for the vacant spot, as is Kyle Olugbode. Zach Hoffpauir will join the competition once baseball season is over. The winner will play next to Jordan Richards, a senior who has started the past two seasons and played regularly as a freshman.

UCLA: Starters Randall Goforth and Anthony Jefferson are both back after being named all-Pac-12 honorable mention last season. Two names to watch are Tahaan Goodman and Tyler Foreman, both of whom arrived as part of the Class of 2013.

USC: Su'a Cravens and Josh Shaw are back, but the Trojans will have to replace Dion Bailey, who left early for the NFL after converting to safety from linebacker last year. Shaw could wind up back at corner, which would open the door for Leon McQuay III. Gerald Bowman got a medical redshirt after appearing in three games last year and should provide depth.

Utah: Veteran Eric Rowe is set to begin his fourth year as a starter in the Utes' secondary, but he'll play next to a new player with Michael Walker out of eligibility. Charles Henderson was Walker's primary backup last season, but look for junior-college transfer Tevin Carter -- a former Cal Bear -- to challenge him for the starting job.

Washington: The Huskies are looking to fill both starting spots and will likely do so with young players. Sophomores Brandon Beaver, Kevin King and Trevor Walker all saw spot duty last year and the program signed an impressive crop of high school safeties, including Bellevue's Bishard “Budda” Baker.

Washington State: Replacing Deone Bucannon means replacing one of the school's all-time greats at his position. Isaac Dotson looks like the favorite to take that spot, but will be pushed by David Bucannon, Darius Lemora and true freshman Markell Sanders, who arrived for spring practice.



The upcoming spring practice sessions will be the first official opportunity for Steve Sarkisian and staff to view the players on the field, and the coaches have been clear that they want to see the players in action before determining certain position spots.

Here are five versatile players who could end up at different spots, depending on how things play out on the field:

[+] EnlargeSu'a Cravens
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIFreshman All-American Su'a Cravens could move up from safety to linebacker if necessary.
DB Josh Shaw: In 2013, it was clear the best thing for the USC defense was to have Shaw at corner. There were a lot of early-season issues with the pass defense that seemingly melted away once Shaw returned to corner for good but that was 2013. It remains to be seen if 2014 will mean Shaw is at corner because there is a good chance he will be needed at safety, too, particularly if Su'a Cravens moves to linebacker. With Kevon Seymour appearing set as one starting corner, the coaches may project someone like Adoree' Jackson as a possibility to work in at the other spot in the fall, which could free up Shaw to get a look at safety. There is also the need for a new slot corner with the departure of Dion Bailey.

DB Su’a Cravens: There has been a lot of message board chatter about the possibility of Cravens being put in the same type of outside linebacker/rover role that Shaq Thompson played in the Washington defense last season. Both have similar frames and unique athletic ability so it’s not a stretch to think the coaches might look at such a move. Cravens was a freshman All-American safety last season so you could always keep him at that spot if a switch doesn’t work out, but any move that gets Cravens closer to the line of scrimmage would seem to make sense.

DL J.R. Tavai: There aren’t too many defensive linemen who have shown the versatility of Tavai in his USC career, as he has seen time at defensive tackle, defensive end and stand-up outside linebacker. And he has done them all well. That’s a nice piece for the coaches to work with this spring, as they have a lot of open spots to fill up front and some good depth along the interior. It should allow them to be flexible with how they use Tavai.

OL Max Tuerk: In his two seasons at USC, Tuerk has started games at left tackle, left guard and right tackle and even had a brief tryout last spring at center. That’s a dream scenario for a coach when a guy, who is arguably your most talented o-lineman, can hold his own across the board. Right now Tuerk is scheduled to get his first look this spring at right tackle to replace three-year starter Kevin Graf, but with a new position coach in Tim Drevno, don’t rule out the possibility of multiple position looks for Tuerk, as the coaches search for the best combination of starters.

RB Tre Madden: I just want to be clear that I think Madden is a running back, and I don’t see him switching positions. However, for the sake of this conversation, what happens if the Trojans fall a bit short of what they are looking for at one of the linebacker spots? There is an abundance of tailbacks right now, and Madden showed the ability to start as a true freshman on defense. USC definitely isn't looking to move the guy who was picking up 100-yard games left and right to open the 2013 season, but it’s nice to know such a talented option is there, if needed.
There’s definite reason for optimism for first-year USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox heading into spring ball. After all, he inherits some key pieces from a unit that finished the 2013 campaign ranked No. 13 in the FBS in total defense (334.9 yards allowed per game) and No. 1 in red zone defense (63 percent scoring percentage).

Still, for the defense to really take off under Wilcox in 2014, there’s one position group that will need to elevate its level of play -- the cornerbacks. Plagued by injuries, the USC corners struggled at times in pass coverage, particularly in games against Arizona State, Arizona and Notre Dame. As such, expect Wilcox and defensive backs coach Keith Heyward to hold an open audition this spring as they look to find the most productive starting duo.

[+] EnlargeKevon Seymour, Taylor Kelly
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesUSC's Kevon Seymour, who was inconsistent in 2013, has challengers for his starting cornerback spot.
Of course, with potential instant-impact freshmen Adoree' Jackson, Jonathan Lockett, John Plattenburg and Lamont Simmons all set to arrive this summer, the upcoming slate of spring practice sessions will almost certainly serve as just the first phase of a lengthy competition at cornerback that will extend through fall camp. Without those blue-chippers around to steal valuable reps, the March and April workouts will be crucial for the candidates currently on the roster to make a lasting impression on the new staff.

Josh Shaw, who started 11 games at cornerback in 2013, stands out as a virtual lock at one of the spots, but with an influx of talent on the way, might we see him make the move back to his more natural free safety position? With Su’a Cravens, Leon McQuay III and Gerald Bowman -- who is coming off shoulder surgery -- serving as the only other scholarship safeties, there is certainly a lack of depth back there, so a potential switch for Shaw seems to make sense. Having proven himself as the team’s most dependable cover man last fall, however, the USC staff might not have the luxury of making that change unless other cornerbacks prove that they can be counted on.

The primary starter on the other side in 2013 was Kevon Seymour, now entering his junior season. The Pasadena (Calif.) Muir product had his ups and downs, but he did cap off his season with an outstanding performance in USC’s Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl victory over Fresno State. The big question now is, was that an anomaly or just the beginning of something special? The answer will likely determine whether or not he remains atop the depth chart in the long run.

Fifth-year senior Anthony Brown has flashed at times, but he has never been able to put it all together on a consistent basis. A veteran with six starts to his credit, it looked like 2013 was going to be his season to make a name for himself. But he suffered a knee injury in the team’s opener at Hawaii that would keep him on the sideline for almost the entire season. He actually returned to start against Notre Dame, but his injury hampered his outing, and he wouldn’t see the field again for the remainder of the season. Standing 5-foot-9 and weighing 180 pounds, he lacks the size of some of his counterparts, but he makes up for that with his speed and quickness. It hasn’t been announced whether or not he’ll be available to practice this spring, but if he is, he'll be in the mix.

Devian Shelton is another player whose status for the spring is still unknown after having foot surgery this past fall, but he too, could factor heavily into the discussion if healthy. Listed at 6-1, he gives the Trojans a taller look, but having redshirted as a freshman, and then missing almost all of 2013, he still lacks experience. Impressing at times last fall in camp with his size, he could even conceivably make the transition back to safety -- where he saw time in high school

One of the more interesting names to keep an eye on is Chris Hawkins. Could this be the time when he emerges from anonymity into a major contributor? A highly touted Class of 2013 prospect, he spent his first season on campus learning the tricks of the trade while redshirting. Although somewhat raw, he showed plenty of ability in practice, especially as the season wore on. If his development continues on its forward path, there’s reason to believe that he has the skills to push for playing time.

Ryan Henderson and Ryan Dillard are two more contenders who have seen limited action in the past in reserve roles. Henderson’s athleticism is undeniable -- he was the 2010 SPARQ Rating National Champion -- but so far that hasn’t translated over to the football field at USC. Dillard, meanwhile, is a walk-on who has certainly held his own, but he would still appear to be somewhat of a longshot. This spring will mark an important time for both players as they attempt to make a move up the depth chart for the first time.
When the 2013 season opened last August, there was a tremendous amount of angst that the USC secondary would have so many holes, it would resemble Swiss cheese. However, the Cardinal and Gold secondary surprised many by finishing second in the Pac-12 in pass defense.

While much of the credit for the secondary’s success goes to a superior front seven and the defensive schemes of former defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who also doubled as secondary coach, the fact remains that the secondary showed marked improvement through the course of the season.

Since his arrival, first-year USC head coach Steve Sarkisian has mostly revamped the staff, which also meant bringing aboard former University of Washington assistant Keith Heyward, who will be Sark’s secondary coach.

The hiring of Heyward appears to be a twofer – not only a widely respected secondary coach, but also a native Southern Californian whose knowledge of the region won’t slow down the recruiting process.

“Technically, this is home for me,” Heyward said with a smile. “I went to Taft High School in Woodland Hills and was coached by Troy Starr. This is awesome to be back down in Southern California and USC. It’s an awesome place, and we all know about the tradition. I am excited to be back and get it rolling.”

[+] EnlargeKeith Heyward
Joshua Weisberg/Icon SMIKeith Heyward says the Trojans secondary is talented but lacking in depth.
Part of the transition for Heyward was getting to know his returning secondary personnel and finding out what makes these guys tick. Call it a bonding session and a chance to just chill.

“I know most of all the guys,” said Heyward, who was an All-Pac-10 honorable mention as a senior corner at Oregon State in 2000. “Josh [Shaw] is a kid I tried to recruit out of Palmdale. I tried to recruit Chris Hawkins, Anthony Brown from the Inland Empire, Devian Shelton from Inglewood. I recruited Su’a Cravens down in Vista Murrieta.

“I recruited all these guys. I tried to recruit them whether I was at Oregon State or Washington, and this is a great group of guys. This is a great foundation for what we want to do. I don’t feel I have to go out there and rebuild this secondary. I think their pass defense was ranked near the top in the conference last year, so I am going to have fun.”

Spring ball will arrive in early March, and Heyward has a preliminary plan to promote himself to his new secondary, but believes it works both ways.

“Basically, you open up to the kids and let them know who you are,” Heyward said. “It’s a two-way street. They have to earn my trust and I have to earn their trust. From there, it’s about what you do.

“They have to know I am putting them in the right situations, and they have to know I care about them and not just wins. I want them to understand I do care about what they’re doing off the field and staying out of trouble socially and in the classroom. When it’s time to talk about football, we’ll talk about football. It’s a trust thing. You can’t just come in here and give a speech. They’ll read right through you.”

As mentioned, the Trojans had great success in the secondary under Pendergast, but with a new system comes new concepts and strategies. Heyward believes the new Trojans defense can be very effective, and he brings a multiple set of secondary schemes.

“We have to be multiple,” Heyward said. “We’re going to press. We’ll play some man and play some zone. It’s going to be a lot of different things we do. I told them they’ll need a DB tool belt.

“You can’t just do one thing. If we only do one thing in this conference, the offensive coordinators will eat you alive. The players will learn a lot of new concepts in blitzing, pressing, man-zone and all that stuff. Our tackling has to be great and we need to be multiple.”

Heyward knows the expectations at USC, and he also has an idea of what he is getting into, especially on the defensive side. Coaching at a powerhouse school such as USC brings high expectations, the highest in the Pac-12.

So, how much does this 34-year-old coach know about the Trojans overall on returning defense?

“I have watched some games and know they have a very good group up front and linebackers,” Heyward said. “The secondary is good, too, but there is a lack of depth.”

As part of his responsibilities, Heyward will be in charge of recruiting not only in Southern California but also covering the Oakland, Stockton, and Sacramento areas of California. This means not only players for his secondary, but for the team in general.

And what kind of athlete is Heyward looking to recruit?

“I think we have to bring a high level of character with players who will compete and win and win a national championship and uphold the academic standards,” said Heyward, whose wife, Cameo, is a former University of Oregon track athlete.

There's no question that Heyward, who played cornerback professionally for the BC Lions in the CFL, the Scottish Claymores in NFL Europe and the L.A. Avengers in the Arena League, has his sights set on a specific type of secondary recruit.

“First, I would say guys that can cover and have ball skills,” Heyward said. “He has to be able to disrupt receivers and tackle well. I have to have smart guys.

“Even though you’re a great athlete, you have to know how to play smart and know what’s going on with other offenses and what they’re trying to do to you. You have to know their formations and certain plays. You have to have FBI: football intellect.”

By the sound of it, it looks like this new Trojans new secondary coach has got everything just about “covered.”
When USC defensive back Josh Shaw learned Steve Sarkisian would be the Trojans' new head coach, it was as if a four-year-old wish was finally granted.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
AP Photo/Jae C. HongDespite the familiarity, Steve Sarkisian says it will take some time before he feels "settled" at USC.
During the recruiting process, Shaw, a Southern California native, developed a strong bond with Sarkisian. Shaw liked Sarkisian and so did Shaw's family, but Washington wasn't the right fit. Shaw had his sights set on the SEC and chose Florida.

"I wanted to play for Coach Sark," Shaw said, "but you never choose a school for the coach."

Shaw's career path is a case in point.

He played for two coaches in two years at Florida -- Urban Meyer and Will Muschamp -- three coaches last year at USC -- Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron and Clay Helton -- and Sarkisian will become No. 6 in five seasons when the Trojans open at home against Fresno State on Aug. 30.

For Shaw, adjusting to a new head-coaching personality has become old hat, and he said the transition at Florida was similar to the most recent change at USC.

"Coach Muschamp came in, [and] he gained our respect instantly," Shaw said. "We knew he had the team's best interest at heart. He wanted to win; we wanted to win."

And Sarkisian?

"That first meeting [on] the day he was hired, he told us he didn't expect for us to trust him right away and that it's earned," Shaw said. "He said it was going to be a process that he'll work at."

So far, so good.

Despite not having played a game for Sarkisian, he was one of the crutches Shaw leaned on the most after the bowl game and before deciding to return to USC for his final year of eligibility.

"There was already some familiarity with us [because of recruiting], but after several talks, we've grown closer," Shaw said. "We sat in his office, and he looked me right in the eye as we discussed what would be the best decision for my future."

The same guidance was there for the five players who opted to enter the NFL draft -- Marqise Lee, Xavier Grimble, Marcus Martin, George Uko and Dion Bailey -- but Sarkisian said he wasn't caught off guard by any of their decisions.

"For those guys that have been here for three and four years, I knew I wasn't going to win them over in one 30- or 40-minute meeting," Sarkisian said. "I just let them know I would be there for them one way or another. For the guys that decided to leave, we're going to do everything we can to support them, too."

When Sarkisian started meeting with players individually, there were two points he wanted to cover right away.

"I think, first and foremost, they understand why I chose to come to USC," Sarkisian said. "And that's to be the best. I want to coach with the best coaches; I want to coach the best players.

"The second piece is I wanted to learn why they chose USC. A lot of times it's for the the same reason, to win championships."

Winning championships is all Sarkisian knew in his previous stints with the Trojans.

After he was elevated from offensive assistant to quarterbacks coach under Pete Carroll in 2002, USC earned at least a share of the conference title each season Sarkisian was on staff. He took a foray into the NFL as quarterbacks coach of Oakland Raiders in 2004, but aside from that, he was there for six of the seven BCS bowl berths during Carroll's tenure.

His last season on staff before taking over at Washington in 2009 also happens to be the last time USC won a conference title.

Despite being home in Southern California and his familiarity with USC, "settled" isn't the term Sarkisian would use to describe his current situation, and he doesn't expect that to change for some time.

"I don't know in Year 1 if you're ever settled in," he said. "Certainly not in six weeks. There are just so many facets to the job, new problems you have to work through, everything is constantly moving."

Especially when it comes to hiring a coaching staff and recruiting.

Sarkisian's staff appeared to be set before defensive line coach Bo Davis, a week after joining the staff at USC, had a change of heart and opted to join Nick Saban's staff at Alabama.

With national signing day on Feb. 5, Sarkisian had to move fast to find a replacement. He settled on Georgia's Chris Wilson, a former defensive coordinator at Mississippi State, after contacting "some of the best defensive line coaches in the country."

USC will begin spring practice on March 11.
LOS ANGELES -- Steve Sarkisian hasn’t been back at USC long -- just over six weeks to be exact -- but as he spoke to a gathering of reporters inside the John McKay Center on Tuesday afternoon, it became apparent that the new head coach certainly isn’t tempering his optimism.

“We’ve got a plenty talented roster to go out and compete for a championship,” Sarkisian said, “and that’s what I said [on] Day 1, and I really have not wavered on that.”


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The Trojans have the decisions of all the NFL draft-eligible players and it was a mixed bag of results, with five players choosing to stay and five players choosing to leave.

It was a strong finish to the process in recent days when Hayes Pullard, Josh Shaw and Buck Allen each made it known that they would be returning. That was welcome news to a team that was looking to withstand the final year of NCAA sanctions on a strong note, but those hopes had already taken a beating with the announcements from the players who decided to leave.

The fact that Marqise Lee was declaring for the draft was understandable and expected. The others, however, brought varying degrees of skepticism as all could have benefited from another year playing for the Trojans. Dion Bailey was probably the player next most ready to leave, and you can make an argument that he had shown what he needed to show at safety after two years spent playing out of position at linebacker.

Marcus Martin was a first-team all-conference selection at center this year, but he will be coming off an injury during the draft process. Martin will be selected, but he would have benefited from a second year of playing at center, having spent his first two years at left guard. George Uko made progress this year and would have seen his exposure rise in 2014 as he would have combined with Leonard Williams to form the most dominant interior defensive line combo in the country.

[+] EnlargeXavier Grimble
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillPerhaps tight end Xavier Grimble could have been a star in Steve Sarkisian's offense.
Xavier Grimble is the one departure that makes the least sense on paper. Grimble had a nice season in 2013 and is certainly a talented player, but he had a chance to come back for 2014 in a system that produced the Mackey Award winner last season. You have to imagine there was a lot of opportunity for Grimble to improve his stock with increased production.

Not only were all five of these departures talented players with a lot of experience, the Trojans cannot replace them because of NCAA scholarship limits that are part of the final year of sanctions related to the Reggie Bush case. USC is allowed to sign a maximum of 19 players this year – four early enrollees which count against last year and 15 new signees on LOI day – and that number does not change, no matter how many players leave for the draft.

So which players will get first shots at replacing the early NFL departees?

At wide receiver, Darreus Rogers figures to move into the starting spot vacated by Lee across from Nelson Agholor. Rogers doesn’t offer the explosive tendencies of Lee or Agholor, but he is a big-bodied guy who can work the middle of the field and the intermediate routes with great success. Don’t be surprised if his touches skyrocket next season. In terms of the next “big-play” receiver, look for Steven Mitchell to make a run for that spot when he returns from injury, along with George Farmer.

Randall Telfer will move into the full-time starting role at tight end that he used to share with Grimble. If Telfer can stay healthy, he is more than capable of putting up big reception numbers of his own. Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick should also get a chance to show what he can do in the passing game.

There are plenty of options to replace Uko in the middle of the line. Delvon Simmons transferred in from Texas Tech last year, and he is a wide body. Kenny Bigelow looks ready to show what all the hype was about in his recruiting process, while a guy like Greg Townsend could get in the mix as well, if healthy. And don’t forget Antwaun Woods -- he started at nose last year but could get moved around by the new staff. Claude Pelon figures in the rotation as well, assuming he gets academically qualified.

Su’a Cravens is a good bet to fill the productive role that Bailey departs, and that could mean more playing time for guys like Leon McQuay and Gerald Bowman. It will be interesting, of course, to see what the new staff does with Shaw, who has shown the ability to play either corner or safety.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Martin
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Martin's spot at center might be the hardest to fill in 2014.
The toughest spot to fill could be at center. Martin made the move last year after the coaches had taken a look at Max Tuerk, a move that didn’t work at the time because of snap fumble issues. Does Tuerk get another shot? What about someone like Cyrus Hobbi or Khaliel Rodgers? Maybe Toa Lobendahn as an early enrollee gets a look during spring ball. Lots of options here, with no clear answer yet.

Even with the obvious issues that present themselves because of the departures, there is still much to be thankful for on the USC end with those who stayed.

Pullard was the biggest key. He’s the leader of the defense both emotionally and on the field, especially during this time of a transition to a new system. That’s when it becomes even more important to have a player like Pullard, a three-year starter who has led the team in tackles in two seasons. You can be sure the coaches breathed a big sigh of relief with the news that he was staying.

The decisions to stay were also huge by Allen and Shaw. There’s a reason Allen was named the team MVP despite being limited to spot duty in the first five games of the season. When given his opportunity, Allen provided the spark that the offense needed to create an explosive presence on the ground. Allen certainly wasn’t the only USC ball-carrier who had success last year, but there was something different about the way he did it. He could be a natural fit in the new system.

Shaw was such a stabilizing presence in 2013, and his move back to corner was as important as any in terms of the USC defense eventually taking the top spot in the conference rankings. It would have been a big step back for that unit if he had left. He returns as one of the more experienced players around.

Finally, Aundrey Walker headed into 2013 as an inconsistent left tackle, but as the year went along he developed into a promising right guard who was just starting to tap into his enormous potential. An injury in the season finale sparked talks that he might leave early, but he will stay to offer another returning starter to a Trojans offensive line that was already losing two starters from last year. It could be a chance for Walker to shine in 2014 with an offensive line coach coming from one of the NFL’s power running teams.

All in all, it could have been better and it could have been worse for the Trojans when it comes to NFL early departures. If there is a silver lining for USC fans, it is the fact that this is the final year of the sanctions, and soon there will be a day when the departures don’t hurt so much. At least now Steve Sarkisian and his staff know what kind of roster they will have returning for next year.
Welcome to the mailbag, which nine out of 10 dentists agree has no bearing on your oral health.

Bobby in Phoenix writes: Mark May said the following yesterday: "I heard through the grapevine, not publicly, but privately, Todd Graham was lobbying like heck to get the Texas job," May told Burns and Gambo on Arizona Sports now on 98.7 FM Tuesday. "Chew on that one, Arizona State Sun Devils fans." I heard it from not one, but two of our reporters at ESPN, that he was lobbying to get that job. It was another one of his 'dream jobs.' Any comments? My thought would be that if not one, but TWO ESPN reporters knew about this they would... umm.... report it? When will his Pitt bias stop seeping through everything he says and Todd Graham and ASU?

Kevin Gemmell: I didn’t hear May’s comments or the interview, so I can only go off of what you said. But there is certainly a gut reaction when the rest of the country hears the name Todd Graham, they instantly think villain.

You know what’s funny is when Brady Hoke left San Diego State after two seasons, he did the exact same thing -- he sent a text blast to the players and that was that. He got on a plane and never returned to San Diego. He was lauded as a hero and treated like Caesar returning from Germania when he got to Ann Arbor. No one cared about how he left SDSU.

But this one stuck with Graham and probably will stick with him for a long time. It’s fascinating how perception and public opinion shapes who we celebrate and who we demonize.

I got to spend a lot of time with Graham this season -- including four days behind the scenes. I was given complete access to everything -- player meetings, coaches meetings, I sat with Graham, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and the quarterbacks at the team dinner and was with the coaches for their final huddle 10 minutes before kickoff of the Wisconsin game. (I even went out the Tillman Tunnel with the team, and I can tell you that was one of the greatest moments of my career). In my time with Graham, I learned he’s the exact same guy behind closed doors as he is in front of a microphone. I really doubt he’s going to put on a four-day show -- and maintain it -- for little ole’ me. If he did, give him the Academy Award.

Is it possible he could jump ship sometime soon? Of course. The guy can coach. That’s why he keeps getting hired. And he hires great coaches to coach alongside him (Gus Malzahn, Chad Morris, Mike Norvell, etc.).

He’s always going to have the Pitt stigma that follows him. Maybe it’s deserved. Maybe it’s time to let it go. Either way, I like his style. I like his schemes. And l like his accountability. After the Holiday Bowl, he put it all on himself. That’s what a coach is supposed to do.

I’ve been lied to plenty by coaches. That comes with asking questions they don’t want to answer. But I’ve also had coaches be totally honest and stand by their word. My gut tells me Graham likes the spot he’s in and he likes the support he’s getting from the administration.


Wayne in Mesa, Ariz. writes: Why was the Pac-12 Championship Game for 2014 moved back to a Friday night? I can understand TV ratings a bit, although the 2013 game had a great Saturday evening time slot. As for attendance, the Saturday date allows for better attendance and more time for the buzz to build up -- as the incredible atmosphere in and around Sun Devil Stadium this past fall would attest!

Kevin Gemmell: Go to your living room. On your coffee table, you’ll probably see a black, rectangular object with many different buttons. Push the one that says “power” and a talking picture box will come to life, projecting real life sounds and images.

Do not be scared or attempt to interact with these moving pictures. They can’t see or hear you.

FOX has the Pac-12 championship game this year, as well as the Big Ten title game the next day. So, yes, it’s TV driven.

I think there is something to be said about being the first game of championship weekend. You get the national audience (at least those who choose to stay up) all to yourself. But from a fan perspective -- especially those attending the game -- it can be a hassle. You have to deal with work and traffic and chances are it won’t be a full stadium -- which never bodes well for the conference.


John in New York writes: USC-UCLA, Stanford-USC, Oregon-Washington, Oregon-Oregon State, Arizona-Arizona State. I'd be really interested to know how you'd rank these particular rivalries, from top to bottom?

Kevin Gemmell: Ranking rivalry games is a fairly futile exercise, because rivalries will always mean more to the folks who have a vested interest in the outcome. Try convincing an Arizona fan that the Apple Cup is more important than the Territorial Cup.

Case in point, I grew up in the Bay Area under the umbrella of the Cal-Stanford rivalry. And though I didn’t attend either school, I consider it one of the greatest rivalries there is because that’s what my personal experience is. Just as I think Will Clark is the greatest baseball player ever and it’s a shame that he’s not in the Hall of Fame.

But I also understand, given the way the Stanford-USC rivalry has played out over the last half decade, that game certainly qualifies as a rivalry. Same for Oregon-Washington and the budding UCLA-Arizona State rivalry.

I know folks are trying to make a rivalry out of the Utah-Colorado matchup. That makes sense, considering both joined the league at the same time. But rivalries aren’t artificially created. They just happen. Colorado fans will always have a bitterness for Nebraska, just as Utah fans will always consider BYU their rival.

The only reason to rank rivalries is to stir the pot and drum up some artificial controversy to give folks a reason to troll and flame.

Which is why Arizona-Arizona State is the best rivalry of all time and always will be. Discuss.


Michigan Trojan in Ann Arbor, Mich. writes: Kevin and Ted … Though I hope they get drafted and have successful NFL careers, I am a little puzzled by the early exits of Xavier Grimble, Dion Bailey, George Uko, and especially Marcus Martin (and possibly Hayes Pullard and Josh Shaw) at USC. Marqise Lee is a sure-fire 1st round pick so I cannot argue with his leaving. But the others, especially guys like Grimble and Martin, were poised to have big years, with lots of exposure that could have made them locks in the second or third round, or possibly surprise first round picks. I know some of them were redshirts, and will technically have their degree in May, but if the NFL is their first stop in terms of profession, why not maximize your potential? Most of these guys will be fourth-round picks at best, and probably have to fight to make a practice squad if they go undrafted. Do you think some of this has to do with what Sarkisian is trying to do at USC, in terms of revamping the defense, and bringing in different position coaches? I also have heard that guys were impressed by the somewhat unexpected success of early-entry guys like undrafted Nickell Robey at the next level. The exodus probably sets SC football back a few wins next year, but again, as individuals, I hope they succeed beyond expectations at the next level.

Kevin Gemmell: It’s obviously different for every guy, so there is no one magic bullet answer. Sometimes it has to do with money. Sometimes it has to do with a coaching change. And sometimes guys simply don’t want to be in school anymore.

I do think USC players are a special exception. The college experience probably hasn’t been a great one for them when you look at the ups and downs of the program the last few years. Most of these guys came in when the sanctions were announced or right in the middle of them. They had bowl bans. They had a disastrous 2012. They saw three different head coaches in 2013.

Can you really blame some of them for wanting to get out and make a little money?

Robey is a fine example of a guy who went undrafted, but had a huge year for the Bills. If I’m his friend and former teammate, that gives both hope and false hope. There’s the thought that if I don’t get drafted, I can still do what Robey did. But for every Robey, there are dozens of other guys who find themselves either on practice squads or boning up on their “ehs?” in the Canadian League. And yes, there is at least one player from a Pac-12 school on every CFL roster, except Montreal (I checked).

I do think a new coaching staff probably had something to do with it as well as the fact that Clancy Pendergast isn’t coming back. For those defensive guys, it would be their third coordinator in the last two years. That’s frustrating. So, and I’m just speculating here, in their eyes if they have to adjust to a new coaching staff, they might as well get paid in the process.


Ryan in Palo Alto, Calif. writes: More math: You wrote: "So the likelihood of the Pac-12 winning all nine games -- even though it was favored in all nine -- seemed highly unlikely. "Actually probability alone (and not underdog motivation or favorite complacency) makes your statement true. Assume for sake of argument, the Vegas line said each Pac-12 team had an 80 percent chance to win. (Of course, different lines for each team and I have no idea what line corresponds to an 80 percent win chance, but useful thought experiment). The chances of all nine teams winning still comes out to only about 13.4 percent.

Kevin Gemmell: This is why Pac-12 blog readers are the life of all social gatherings.

Pac-12 all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
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Who were the Pac-12 standouts this bowl season? Here are our picks.

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsBrett Hundley finished the season with a strong performance in the Bruins' bowl win.
QB Brett Hundley, UCLA: Hundley accounted for four touchdowns in the Bruins' 42-12 win over Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl. He rushed for 161 yards on 10 carries -- 16.1 yards per run -- with two touchdowns and he also completed 16 of 29 passes for 226 yards and two scores. Other QBs had nice games, but Hundley put up big numbers against an outstanding defense.

RB Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona: In the AdvoCare V100 Bowl win over Boston College, Carey rushed for 169 yards on 27 carries and two scores, averaging 6.3 yards per rush. He decisively outplayed Boston College RB Andre Williams, who won the Doak Walker Award and was a Heisman Trophy finalist.

RB D.J. Foster, Arizona State: Despite being banged up, Foster rushed for 132 yards on 20 carries -- 6.6 yards per carry -- in the Sun Devils' 37-23 loss to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl. He also caught five passes for 23 yards.

WR Marqise Lee, USC: In his career finale, Lee caught seven passes for 118 yards with two touchdowns in USC's win over Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

WR Nate Phillips, Arizona: Phillips, a true freshman, caught nine passes for 193 yards in the Wildcats' win over Boston College.

WR Josh Huff, Oregon: Huff caught five passes for 104 yards and a touchdown in Oregon's 30-7 win over Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl.

OL Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA: Su'a-Filo led the Bruins' offensive line against a tough Virginia Tech defense. UCLA rushed for 197 yards against a top-10 rushing defense and yielded only two sacks.

OL Abe Markowitz, USC: The sixth-year walk-on stepped in at center for an injured Marcus Martin -- the Trojans' best offensive lineman this season -- and played well in the 45-20 win over Fresno State. The Trojans yielded only one sack and rushed for 154 yards. He was named the "Offensive Outperformer of the Game" by his coaches.

OL Jake Fisher, Oregon: Fisher led a strong effort from the Ducks' offensive line in the win over Texas. Oregon rushed for 216 yards and yielded only two sacks. Fisher did a good job against Texas' top defender, end Jackson Jeffcoat.

OL Micah Hatchie, Washington: Hatchie, the Huskies' left tackle, was the biggest reason BYU didn't record a sack in the Fight Hunger Bowl, a 31-16 Huskies victory. Washington also rushed for 190 yards.

OL Isaac Seumalo, Oregon State: Seumalo led perhaps the Beavers O-line's best effort of the season. Oregon State rushed for 195 yards and yielded no sacks.

K Travis Coons, Washington: Coons made a 45-yard field goal against BYU -- the longest Pac-12 postseason field goal -- and was good on all four of his PATs.

DEFENSE

DL Scott Crichton, Oregon State: Crichton had three tackles for a loss, a sack, a forced fumble and pass breakup in the win over Boise State.

DL Taylor Hart, Oregon: Hart had a game-high 11 tackles, with half a sack and a forced fumble in the Ducks' win over Texas.

DL Hau'oli Kikaha, Washington: Kikaha had nine tackles with three sacks and a forced fumble in the Huskies' win over BYU.

LB Shayne Skov, Stanford: Skov had nine tackles, three tackles for a loss, a sack and a forced fumble in Stanford's 24-20 loss to Michigan State in the Rose Bowl.

LB Jake Fischer, Arizona: Fischer had a game-high 14 tackles in the Wildcats' win over Boston College. He also had a sack and 1.5 tackles for a loss. Arizona held Williams to only 75 yards on 26 carries.

LB John Timu, Washington: Timu had a game-high 14 tackles, a sack and an interception in the Huskies' win over BYU.

LB Jabral Johnson, Oregon State: Johnson had a game-high 12 tackles, a sack and a quarterback hurry in the Beavers' win over Boise State.

DB Rashaad Reynolds, Oregon State: Reynolds had 10 tackles and returned two fumbles for touchdowns in the Beavers' win over Boise State. The fumble returns went for 70 and 3 yards.

DB Avery Patterson, Oregon: Patterson had nine tackles and returned an interception 37 yards for a touchdown in the win over Texas.

DB Josh Shaw, USC: Shaw held Fresno State receiver Davante Adams to nine receptions for 73 yards in the Trojans' win over the Bulldogs. He finished with six tackles and had an interception in the end zone.

DB Anthony Jefferson, UCLA: Jefferson had seven tackles, shared a tackle for a loss and had a pass breakup in the Bruins' win over Virginia Tech. The Hokies completed only 15 of 36 throws for 176 yards.

P Ben Rhyne, Stanford: With five punts, Rhyne averaged 49.8 yards per boot in the Rose Bowl.

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.
With the news that junior safety Dion Bailey will make himself available for the NFL draft, that is one piece of the Trojans' defensive puzzle that is known for next year.

[+] EnlargeClancy Pendergast
Joe Andras/WeAreSC.comUSC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast did wonders with the Trojans in 2013.
In the coming weeks, the Trojans will find out if other draft-eligible defensive stalwarts such as defensive end George Uko, linebacker Hayes Pullard and cornerback Josh Shaw will stay in school or choose to follow Bailey to the next level.

Those decisions will obviously have a huge impact on the fortunes of the 2014 USC defense as all of those players had prominent roles in the success this season. But there is another important cog in the defensive machine that is also unclear in terms of being back: defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.

New USC coach Steve Sarkisian has filled six spots on his staff -- including the news over the weekend that Trojans offensive coordinator Clay Helton would be retained -- but there has been no confirmed news as far as his plans for the defensive coordinator spot.

There is a lot of speculation that Justin Wilcox -- who served for the past two seasons as defensive coordinator for Sarkisian at Washington – would be coming down to join the staff at USC. The Huskies play in the Fight Hunger Bowl on December 27 so any update on Wilcox will likely come after that game.

Wilcox has certainly developed a reputation as an up-and-coming coach who bolstered the Huskies' defense and received consideration for the Boise State head coaching job after Chris Petersen left the Broncos to replace Sarkisian at Washington.

A quick check of Pendergast’s one-season body of work, however, has many USC fans wondering why Pendergast wouldn’t be a natural option to keep on the staff as well.

Pendergast took over a USC defense that gave up 394 yards per game in 2012, the second highest total in school history, and over 24 points per game, the fourth highest mark. In 2013 under Pendergast, the Trojans led the conference in passing defense and red zone defense and were No. 2 in total defense, run defense and scoring defense.

That improvement was seen with many of the same players that were on the team in 2012, except for a few key losses in current NFL players T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey. There was a change in scheme, from the 4-3 to the 5-2. There were depth issues, coaching changes and double duty for Pendergast, who also served as secondary coach. And there was success against both ends of the offensive spectrum -- his defense held up against the physical power running attack of Stanford and against the highest-ranked passing game in the country with Fresno State.

There was improvement with many individual players. Devon Kennard had spent three years playing out of position and was coming off a missed season due to injury, but he ended up leading the team in sacks and was a Lott IMPACT Trophy finalist. Leonard Williams was named an ESPN All-American. Pendergast took a safety in Shaw and made him a valuable corner, J.R. Tavai moved from an interior D-lineman to a stand-up OLB and Bailey made the effortless switch from linebacker to safety.

Pendergast isn’t flashy, but he’s a relatively quiet coach on the field who holds his players accountable and gets obvious results. Players like Shaw have been quick to praise him for the work that was done this year. Oh, and if you want NFL swag, he’s also got Super Bowl experience from a stint with the Arizona Cardinals.

There is a lot on Sarkisian’s plate in terms of filling out his staff but one of his best options might just be to find a way to keep Pendergast around if at all possible.

After bowl win, big questions for USC

December, 23, 2013
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When you cup your hands around USC's 45-20 blowout victory over No. 20 Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl and assume singular focus on the event itself, it's impossible to not be impressed, to not think, "Now that is USC football."

Then when you put it in the context of the tumultuous season -- a maelstrom of coaching uncertainty and chaotic swings of momentum -- it seems like Trojans fans should officially declare the strangest season in program history at least a moderate success, perhaps as successful as it could have been. Well, other than losses to Notre Dame and UCLA.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesThings seem to be looking up for Cody Kessler, left, Buck Allen and the Trojans.
Still, winning 10 games, including a bowl game, and ending up nationally ranked is pretty respectable when it's produced by an injury-ravaged, scholarship-reduced team that has called four different men its head coach between August and today.

Further, it shows the players have pride. A substantial handful -- both seniors and underclassmen -- are eyeballing the NFL draft, and it wouldn't have been shocking if they gave an indifferent performance against Fresno State, a team that arrived with plenty of motivation. Quarterback Cody Kessler told Kevin last week that the Trojans were focused and motivated, and it proved to me more than empty, tell-the-reporter-something-pretty talk.

Said Kessler, "Getting us to 10 wins puts us in an elite group. We have a chance to finish things off right -- especially for our seniors. These guys have been through everything. Sanctions. Coaching changes. We owe it to them to give it everything we’ve got to get a win.”

So the players who are leaving, which might include leading juniors such as receiver Marqise Lee, defensive end George Uko, linebacker Hayes Pullard, safety Dion Bailey and cornerback Josh Shaw, can feel good about how they finished things. If this performance was a tribute to former interim coach Ed Orgeron, then you can be sure Coach O was howling with delight somewhere while watching the game.

But what about those who are staying?

The big news coming out of the Las Vegas Bowl other than the final score was that new coach Steve Sarkisian will retain offensive coordinator Clay Helton, who served as the interim head coach for the bowl game. That's probably good news for Kessler, who blossomed once Helton took over the offense from fired coach Lane Kiffin.

Of course, Sarkisian, like Kiffin, calls his own offensive plays, so if another opportunity arises for Helton, particularly one that includes play-calling duties, he might opt to leave.

In fact, who's staying and who's going applies to both the players and coaches. We probably won't get official word on the makeup of Sarkisian's staff until after Washington, his former team, plays BYU in the Fight Hunger Bowl on Friday night. The Huskies under new coach Chris Petersen also have kept their plans quiet.

The big questions: Will Huskies defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo follow Sarkisian south? If Wilcox shortly arrives at Heritage Hall, then where does current USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast end up? In one year, he transformed one of the nation's most underachieving defenses into one of its best. Hard to imagine he stays unemployed for long.

This whole blending together of USC's and Washington's -- and Washington's and Boise State's -- 2013 staffs has certainly inspired plenty of gossip among other assistant coaches.

Another question: Tosh Lupoi.

The Huskies ace recruiter and defensive line coach is being investigated by the NCAA following allegations that he paid for private tutoring for Husky football recruit Andrew Basham, with Basham's former high school track coach, Mike Davis, spilling the beans to the Los Angeles Times and Seattle Times last week.

What that means in the short term is that Lupoi won't be hired by USC, and he might be out of a job until the NCAA rules on his case. What it means in the big picture for two Pac-12 football programs in transition is hard to say, as Washington, USC and Sarkisian have significant interests in the matter.

Due to new NCAA rules, Sarkisian could be exposed, which means USC could suffer for violations that occurred in Seattle.

And, yes, feel free to question the timing of these allegations being reported and speculate on where the sour grapes originated that spawned the investigation.

An offshoot of Lupoi's troubles is the Trojans’ need for a defensive line coach, which probably is why Sarkisian told ESPNLA 710 on Sunday that he's going to make another run at Orgeron to see if he's interested in returning to USC.

That could be interesting. Or it could just be idle talk.

Once all the administrative and personnel issues are settled, then we'll start to take a measure of the Sarkisian administration and how things might stack up in 2014. Trojans fans first want to see where their team ends up on Feb. 5, national signing day. Then it's on to spring practice, where Kessler likely will have to prove himself again, though Helton staying on should provide his candidacy a boost.

USC's bowl win was impressive. It surely made Trojans feel good, inside and outside the locker room. But the reality is it was as isolated as a pleasant fan experience can be. A win in the Las Vegas Bowl and finishing in the lower half of the nation's top-25 isn't what Trojans pine for. With this next recruiting class the last one limited by NCAA sanctions, most are ready to see the program regain its footing among the Pac-12 and nation's elite.

Sarkisian officially took the keys of the program on Saturday. By Sunday, the euphoria from the bowl win probably started to waft away inside Heritage Hall.

The real business begins now.

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