USC Trojans: Lamar Dawson

The USC Trojans came out in helmets and shorts on Friday and took part in a practice session that head coach Steve Sarkisian said mirrored what the team's Thursday workouts will look like during the season.

An extremely light practice that was around an hour-and-a-half long, Sarkisian said that with the opener coming up in just over a week, the primary focus was on working out the kinks and making sure everyone was on the same page.

As the countdown to the college football season inches closer – with less than 100 days to go before the season opener – that means it’s time for the annual rite of passage known as the summer workouts.

These conditioning sessions and throwing drills provide a look into the future when you see the varying degrees of work ethic and commitment that each squad puts in. It’s also the first real look at the incoming freshmen, to see where they stack up against the big boys in their transition to the next level.

One group that is certainly looking forward to these sessions are the players who were forced to miss spring ball because of injury. Steve Sarkisian made it clear that he erred on the side of caution with many players to hold them out – guys such as Leonard Williams and Josh Shaw come to mind – but there were others who missed time with injuries that have slowed their development and adjustment to the uptempo style of play.

Here are five players who missed spring ball but hope to begin the comeback to playing time by taking part in summer workouts.


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Here’s a look at some of the major offseason storylines for a USC linebacker corps that, under the direction of a new position coach in Peter Sirmon, performed at a high level this spring as a key piece of the puzzle in defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 multiple-front scheme.

Pullard’s return provides boost in more ways than one

[+] EnlargeHayes Pullard
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergHayes Pullard's decision to return to USC was huge for the Trojans due to both his play and his veteran leadership.
Shortly after Hayes Pullard announced that he would remain at USC for his senior season -- bucking the trend established by many of the other high-profile, draft-eligible players on the roster such as Dion Bailey and George Uko to leave early -- Wilcox referred to the veteran inside linebacker as the staff’s “biggest recruit,” and for good reason. After all, the Trojans not only regained the services of a stellar performer who has paced the defense in tackles in two of the past three seasons, they also held on to a leader who commands a level of respect from his teammates that would have been impossible to replace.

That fact was obvious during spring ball, when Pullard played an important role in making sure each member of the USC defense was on the same page as they acclimated to the new system. Pullard was a captain in 2013 who figures to hold on to that title in 2014. His return bodes well for the Trojans not only when it comes to the immediate success of the team but also in the long term as younger players like sophomore Michael Hutchings -- Pullard’s primary backup -- are afforded the opportunity to continue to benefit from the knowledge Pullard has to pass down for another season.

Can Dawson reclaim the starting spot at WILL?

One of the most tightly contested position battles leading up to the 2013 campaign was at WILL linebacker, with Lamar Dawson and Anthony Sarao duking it out for the right to line up alongside Pullard. Dawson ultimately came out on top, but he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee midway through the season, and it was Sarao who started the final seven games of the season.

Dawson is scheduled to be back in time for fall camp, but with Sarao performing solidly in his stint with the No. 1 unit -- both last fall and into the spring -- if Dawson wants his old job back, he’ll have to fight for it once again. Coming off a serious injury, however, it won’t be easy, particularly when you consider the fact he missed the entire spring -- a time when many of his teammates grew accustomed to the lightning-quick tempo of each practice under the new regime. And with Sarao having now proven himself to a certain extent, there’s reason to believe that Dawson, who has shined at times but underwhelmed at others, will need to come back in top form.

Competition at SAM one to watch

The competition between Dawson and Sarao at the WILL spot won’t be the only head-to-head duel to keep an eye on in fall camp. In fact, after what both Jabari Ruffin and Quinton Powell showed this spring, the battle at SAM linebacker has the potential to develop into one of the biggest storylines of fall camp.

Ruffin, a third-year sophomore, and Powell, a sophomore, each stood out throughout the recent March and April practice sessions, providing more than enough evidence to suggest this position should be in good hands, regardless of which player is in there at any given time. Both candidates are tremendous athletes who are strong at the line of scrimmage as well as in coverage, and they possess the size and length head coach Steve Sarkisian has said he covets at the SAM position.

Powell, who plays with a ton of energy, began the spring as the starter, but by the later stages of camp it was the rangy Ruffin who was going with the No. 1 group. Still, there certainly isn’t a lot separating these two, and when the post-spring depth chart was released, both were listed on top with the trademark “OR” designation sitting between their names, meaning this competition is still very much ongoing. It figures to remain that way through fall camp, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both of the up-and-comers play quite a bit in the fall.

Newcomers ready to join the fray

While USC possesses a solid collection of talent up and down the two-deep at linebacker, with the scholarship restrictions put in place due to NCAA sanctions the Trojans still don’t have what you’d consider ideal depth just yet. That said, a number of outside linebacker/defensive end types are set to arrive on campus this summer who will help remedy that issue, and it will be interesting to see if any are capable of jumping right into the mix.

Harbor City (Calif.) Narbonne’s Uchenna Nwosu is a former safety with 6-foot-3, 210-pound size who looks tailor made for the SAM linebacker position, although he’s athletic and versatile enough that he could even conceivably play on the inside. Olajuwon Tucker, from local powerhouse Gardena (Calif.) Serra, is another player who looks like a natural fit at SAM. Standing 6-3 and 220 pounds, he has the ability to cover a tremendous amount of ground in coverage, and he’s just as strong coming off the edge after the quarterback.

Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco’s Malik Dorton and Boise Timberline’s Don Hill, an early entrant who sat out spring ball with an Achilles' injury, are two more promising additions who could certainly factor in at SAM linebacker, although their larger frames suggest they might be better suited on the opposite side at rush end.

A look at USC's rehabbing players

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LOS ANGELES -- They observe in jerseys, and for those who can, they participate in controlled spring conditioning drills, walk-throughs, and mental preparation. Some even walk the steep steps of the Coliseum from bottom to top and back down again.

But no matter what they do, USC's walking wounded aren’t remotely in the same condition as their healthy brethren, who are fit enough to stretch the limits of their physical being in Steve Sarkisian’s nonstop practice pace.

[+] EnlargeJustin Davis
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriJustin Davis isn't a factor this spring, but his work ethic and motor will help him be ready for fall camp.
Sarkisian, USC's first-year head coach, is a great believer in muscle memory, which basically means one learns from doing rather than watching. In his incredibly fast paced, no-huddle offense and rotating defense, muscle memory must also go hand-in-hand with muscle conditioning.

Despite watching their teammates practice and condition at a pace not seen on Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Fields, there is an uneasiness that come regular season camp, in the heat of summer, the currently rehabilitating players could be in for a major conditioning shock.

Sarkisian feels that his available players in spring ball are now rounding into the type of shape needed for the regular season, and spring ball has been a catalyst to being in the type of condition needed for fall competition.

“That’s why we practice the way that we do,” Sarkisian said. “That’s why we make it as hard we can throughout practice. This prepares our guys for a game-like atmosphere.”

Come practice in August, Sarkisian expects his healthy players to return ready to go from a conditioning standpoint, and he also knows the conditioning challenge is even more pronounced for those rehabbing.

“The guys [who] are injured have their work cut out for them when they get back,” Sarkisian said.

Here are six rehabilitating players being held out of spring ball (for the most part) who are expected to be key contributors in 2014. They all will be faced with the challenge of getting into “Sarkisian shape” by early August:

• RB Justin Davis: Given the sophomore’s early track record of success on and off the field, Davis -- who suffered a season-ending broken ankle in 2013 -- figures to be ready with an indisputable work ethic and relentless motor. Expect him to enter fall camp in top condition.

• LB Lamar Dawson: Recovering from a left knee injury, this senior will not only battle junior Anthony Sarao for his starting inside linebacker position, but he will have to be in the type of shape that Sarao knows all too well. Sarao has really come on and plays with a high motor and intelligence, so Dawson has his work cut out for him in more ways than one.

• WR Steven Mitchell: The redshirt freshman is an electrifying player when healthy. Recovering from tearing ligaments in his right knee during the summer of 2013, Mitchell says he is still on the mend but expects to be in ready to go in August. A hard worker, the former Bishop Alemany star’s return would be a major addition for the currently ultra-thin receiving corps.

• OG Jordan Simmons: With his size (6-foot-4, 335) and the pace of the offense, will the sophomore be able to come into camp in the type of shape needed for the no-huddle offense? Simmons, recovering from knee surgery, could very well be a key and the final piece of the offensive line. So far Simmons is still potential and an unproven talent.

• TE Randall Telfer: With Xavier Grimble leaving early for the NFL draft, it appeared that Telfer would step right in. The senior might still do so, but he has been held out of spring ball with a knee issue, and his absence has opened the way for an impressive March and April by junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. It would behoove Telfer to be in the best condition of his Trojans career to hold off Cope-Fitzpatrick and the incoming presence of true freshman talent Bryce Dixon.

• OG Aundrey Walker: There are those both within the team and onlookers who say that Walker, now a senior, has the talent. But does he have the motivation? The Ohio native has spent spring practice observing and going through “soft” drills, but one wonders how the 6-foot-6, 300-pound guard will cope with the physical and mental conditioning demands to play in Sarkisian’s never-take-a-breath offense.
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.

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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.”

2013 review: USC defense

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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.

Trojans hitting stride at right time

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The Trojans arrived home in Los Angeles on Sunday morning in a good position.

Coming off a satisfying 49-27 victory over Colorado, USC extended its win streak to five games and an overall 6-1 record under interim coach Ed Orgeron. It might not have been enough to get the Trojans into the Pac-12 title game -- ASU clinched the berth from the south on Saturday night -- but that bit of news will do little to dampen the enthusiasm of the players and coaches.

[+] EnlargeJavorius Allen
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiBuck Allen rushed for 145 yards and three touchdowns in the Trojans' win over Colorado.
There is too much else to celebrate about what this team has accomplished to worry about the title game. Yes, it would have been nice for the program, especially considering the Trojans have yet to play in the game as it enters its third year in existence. But to focus solely on the title game would be a disservice to everything else that has gone on with this program over the last seven weeks, a process that has seen the team continue to improve to the point where they are playing their best football of the year at a time when the Bruins come to the Coliseum.

Not only do the Trojans have a chance to put the finishing touches on an amazing in-season turnaround with a victory over UCLA, they also have a chance to right a painful memory from last year. In their first season under coach Jim Mora, the Bruins got the upper hand in 2012 with a 38-28 victory in the Rose Bowl, a win that was all the more notable considering USC had beaten UCLA 50-0 the previous year.

The Bruins have tried to use the momentum from last year to lay claim to ownership of Los Angeles, on the field and on the recruiting trail. The slow start to the USC season appeared to give credence to those efforts, all while UCLA got a big road win over Nebraska and had high-profile stars such as Brett Hundley and Anthony Barr.

Then came the coaching switch for USC and tides of change have swung local momentum back in favor of the Trojans. While USC has been thriving under Orgeron, the Bruins are 3-3 in their last six games. While the Bruins were once ranked in the top 10 and the Trojans were unranked, the two teams now stand right next to each other in the rankings at No. 22 (UCLA) and 23 (USC).

The USC players are certainly going to want revenge for last year. Trojans safety Dion Bailey said in the locker room following the Colorado game that he and his teammates needed to “remind the Bruins” of who runs the town. That bit of chatter about ownership rights of the city is always part of this rivalry so that’s nothing new, but it doesn't figure to be the overriding storyline of this game.

The ongoing saga of Orgeron and his pursuit of the full-time USC job will dominate the discussions leading up to Saturday night, but what shouldn't get lost in the shuffle is the fact his team is playing well right now, as good as he could have hoped for in such an important matchup.

USC has a quarterback in Cody Kessler who has thrown five touchdowns and no interceptions in his last three games while growing into a clear leader of the offense. The running game has received a huge boost from the play of Buck Allen, with his nine rushing touchdowns in the last four games and the splash of explosiveness he adds on the ground. There is also the thought in opponents' minds now of a 260-pound fullback in Soma Vainuku who can move pretty well, too.

On the outside there is still the reality that Marqise Lee is bothered by injuries but Nelson Agholor has stepped up to help pick up some of the slack. Lee would love to be back on the field against UCLA to help make up for 2012 in what will likely be his final home game at the Coliseum. At tight end, Xavier Grimble showed on Saturday what can happen when the tight ends are healthy and utilized the right way as he led the team with six catches.

The development of the offensive line has to be considered one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. It’s no accident when a team has four different running backs go for over 100 yards in a game, at some point the line is doing something right.

On defense, the USC front seven is starting to get recognition as one of the best units in college football. Leonard Williams is playing like an All-American and Devon Kennard isn’t far behind. It makes it all the more impressive to think the Trojans are doing this lately without leading sacker Morgan Breslin, primarily due to the fine play of J.R. Tavai.

There has been the dependable leadership from Hayes Pullard while Anthony Sarao stepped in for an injured Lamar Dawson without missing a beat. And what was once the biggest weakness on the team, the secondary play and coverage at the corner spot, has been stabilized by the physical presence of Josh Shaw while Bailey has been a playmaker at safety.

On top of all that, kicker Andre Heidari battled through his job being put up for grabs to nail the biggest kick of his career in the win over Stanford.

Those are a lot of positives for the Trojans, players who are rising up and playing well, and by no means are these the only players getting it done. Orgeron has provided substance to the loose atmosphere he has fostered with the Trojans and now he and his team have a chance to finish this magnificent regular season run in style.

Five things: USC-Utah

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Five things to watch for USC in the upcoming game against Utah:


Injuries: The long list of injuries for the Trojans is mind-numbing these days and three more players were lost for the season this week; linebacker Lamar Dawson (knee), tailback Justin Davis (ankle) and offensive guard Jordan Simmons (knee). These are not inconsequential losses as Dawson was fourth on the team in tackles and Davis was second on the team in rushing. At the end of Tuesday’s practice, only one scholarship receiver was available -- Darreus Rogers -- and there were no scholarship tight ends. How the USC injury list stands on Saturday may be as important to the outcome of the game as anything.

USC O-line vs Utah D-line: It was a rough night for the Trojans O-line against the Irish and it doesn’t figure to get a whole lot easier this week against a defensive line that paves the way for the conference lead in sacks. The Utes have 22 sacks on the year and 16 come from the line. They are a strong and aggressive group, led by a pair of outside pass rushers in Trevor Reilly and Nate Orchard. Under normal circumstances the Trojans would use the tight ends to help with blocking assignments so this is yet another area where injuries could come into play.

USC corners vs. Utah pass game: The Trojans pass defense has been a struggle for the past three games and interim coach Ed Orgeron has decided to address things with a position change. Josh Shaw will move from safety to corner, the position he played earlier in the season. Orgeron is confident that the presence of Shaw will help to correct things, noting that the problems were not there earlier when Shaw was at corner. The ability of Utah to attack USC is the passing game will depend largely on the health of Utes quarterback Travis Wilson, who suffered a hand injury last week against Arizona but is expected to play on Saturday.

Kicking competition: After Andre Heidari missed two of three field goals against Notre Dame, Orgeron announced that the place-kicker job would be open for competition this week. Heidari, who has been the starter since his freshman year, admitted after Wednesday’s practice that he is in “a funk” with his kicking but he is confident he can work out of it. Alex Wood and Craig McMahon are being given longer looks in practice with a decision expected Friday after Orgeron meets with special teams coach John Baxter.

How do Trojans respond: It was an emotional scene in the USC locker room after the game in South Bend and it was obvious that was a game the players really wanted. They had fought hard but just weren’t able to pull it out. What made it even more interesting is how many players talked about how they wanted to win it for Orgeron. The interim coach has put a much-needed focus on the players, on keeping their spirits up, and that energy will need to continue because there is no time for a letup against Utah. Don’t forget that the Utes are the one team this year that has defeated Stanford.
There are some losses that simply hurt more for fans than others and the 14-10 USC defeat last night in South Bend, Ind., certainly qualifies.

What makes this one so tough is the missed opportunities. This wasn’t a game for the ages in the USC-Notre Dame rivalry and it wasn’t particularly well played on either side, but it was there for the taking for the Trojans and you hate to lose those opportunities when you have them.

[+] EnlargeSilas Redd
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTailback Silas Redd rushed for 112 yards vs. Notre Dame but the Trojans offense struggled mightily in the second half.
Things started so well for the Trojans with a Troy Polamalu-esque goal line stop on fourth down by Su’a Cravens on the opening drive by the Irish. Then the USC offense responded with a beautiful 13-play, 96-yard drive that ended with a Silas Redd touchdown to go up 7-0. And that was about it for the SC highlights on the night.

For the remainder of the game, it just seemed as if the Trojans couldn’t get out of their own way. Redd ran for 91 yards in the first half and eventually became the first runner this year to go over 100 yards against the Irish. Redd was the one USC player who seemed capable of pounding Notre Dame all night but for some reason his touches in the second half were limited.

Nelson Agholor was another bright spot -- both as a receiver and punt returner -- but even he could only do so much after Marqise Lee had gone out of the game with an injury. Lee had tried to come back from a recent knee injury but he had another key drop, this one on a potential touchdown pass on a well-thrown ball by quarterback Cody Kessler.

Kessler had a commendable game, completing 20 of 34 pass attempts for 201 yards. He was under constant pressure from the Notre Dame defensive line and was throwing to a depleted pass-catching group that eventually was missing three of the five scholarship receivers and the top two tight ends.

And we haven’t even gotten to the penalties yet. The Trojans committed 11 penalties for 95 yards and so many of them seemed to come at critical times to negate a big play or first down. The biggest came on a holding call that brought back a Kessler scramble down to the Irish 3-yard line late in the game. There was also a non-call against Notre Dame as a pass interference penalty was not called on an Irish defender against Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick on the final USC drive.

There was a big hit by Lamar Dawson that knocked Irish quarterback Tommy Rees out of the game after Rees had looked sharp throwing the ball, particularly in the direction of USC cornerback Anthony Brown. The replacement for Rees, Andrew Hendrix, was not able to complete a pass in the game but, once again, the Trojans were unable to take advantage.

Even with all that, the Trojans still had their chances. They had three straight drives in the second half that started on the Irish side of the field and a fourth that began at the USC 48-yard line, yet they were unable to score. There were five USC drives in the second half that went six yards or less. After converting the first two third-down conversions of the game, the Trojans did not convert their next 11 tries. The Trojans also missed a pair of field goals that would have provided a winning margin if successful. It was simply one of those nights.

So where do the Trojans go from here after such a disappointing loss? There are no easy answers for interim coach Ed Orgeron. The momentum had been going in such a positive direction since Orgeron took over but this game magnified the realities of where USC is at for the rest of the season. There are issues with the pass defense, the O-line, penalties and third-down conversions. There are injury issues to key players. There doesn’t seem to be a clear identity yet for the offense under Clay Helton and opposing offenses are suddenly having a lot of success against Clancy Pendergast's defense.

One thing Orgeron praised is that the USC players showed fight against Notre Dame. As frustrating as it was to watch the Trojans fail to find a way to pull out the game, it was clear that the effort was there from the team right up until the end. You can’t imagine that so many factors are going to go against you in the way that they did against the Irish so if the effort can be maintained, that gives Orgeron something to build on.

The Utah Utes are coming to town next week and they are more than capable of putting up a fight. Maybe the Trojans can get Lee back, perhaps Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer too. Maybe there are some shake-ups in personnel. Whatever changes need to be made, Orgeron needs to make them. What does he have to lose? The worse thing that could happen to this team is to let the Notre Dame game beat them twice. Chalk up the gut-wrenching loss to the Irish and move on because there is still plenty left to play for this season and it starts next Saturday at the Coliseum.


Change is in the air at USC as Ed Orgeron wraps up its first week as the interim head coach of the Trojans.

In an effort to pump more energy into the team, Orgeron implemented a series of changes designed to shift the fortunes of a team that had been playing inconsistently through the first five games of the season. Last week, Orgeron restored desserts to the training table menu and held a “Trojan Bowl” game during the bye week which showcased younger players and walk-ons while being coached by the team veterans.

On Sunday, the quarterbacks came on the field without the yellow “no-contact” jerseys. Offensive players are wearing Cardinal this week (the colors change depending on if the next game is home or away) and Orgeron wanted to emphasize that everybody on the team will wear the same jersey.

[+] EnlargeMax Wittek and Cody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC quarterbacks Max Wittek (13) and Cody Kessler (6) won't be wearing the no-contact jerseys in practice under Ed Orgeron.
“He told us that we were going to wear the same colors as the other guys,” USC quarterback Cody Kessler said. “I think it’s great.”

One non-quarterback who was back on the field on Sunday was tailback Silas Redd, who has gone through very limited action this fall as he continued to rehabilitate his injured knee. Redd got a lot of reps in the Sunday session and looked strong, especially when you consider how long it had been since he had that much work.

“We got Silas a little taste today,” Orgeron said. “We will see how he goes through the week in terms of how much we can use him. He runs the ball the way we expect a back to run.”

Justin Davis was limited in action at tailback with his injured ankle – Orgeron called him probable for the game – and that meant additional work for guys like Ty Isaac and Buck Allen as well. It will be interesting to see how Orgeron chooses to work the tailback rotation in games because while the Trojans certainly have option, the run game has been one of the few consistent areas on the team, with Tre Madden and Davis leading the way.

Also missing from the Sunday session were wide receivers Marqise Lee (knee) and Darreus Rogers (ankle), along with outside linebacker Morgan Breslin (hip) and cornerback Anthony Brown (knee). Orgeron didn’t have any firm information about their availability for the game Thursday against Arizona.

To add to the receiver depth issues, Victor Blackwell left the Sunday practice early because of illness but it isn’t expected to impact his participation in the game. Nelson Agholor had a nice day with several deep catches.

There was a lot of work in this practice with the tight ends, particularly Xavier Grimble. This has been an area of frustration for many USC fans so far this season, with the lack of production by the tight ends, and it could be one of the changes that are seen in the offense moving forward.

On the defensive side of the ball, Josh Shaw got reps at safety – his original position this season – with Kevon Seymour and Torin Harris getting the first unit reps at corner. Quinton Powell was back as a reserve inside linebacker after missing some time recently. Devon Kennard and Scott Starr both had sacks and Lamar Dawson had a nice tackle for loss on Allen.

“The key for us on defense this week is to tackle,” Orgeron said. “We were back on our heels a lot against ASU and I want to see us be more aggressive.”

Orgeron acknowledged that the good feelings that have been present over the past week with the coaching transition is nice – he and his staff were out recruiting over the weekend and he said the reaction was “great” – but he also knows that it doesn’t mean much because it’s not a game. He and his team will ultimately be judged by how they perform in games and that first test comes on Thursday the Coliseum.

“We want our players to feel comfortable and to play good football,” Orgeron said. “I think we’re all going to be excited about our first game together but we need to be careful about overemphasizing emotion. We need to make sure we play with poise.”

Perplexing offense still holding USC back 

September, 23, 2013
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LOS ANGELES -- It shouldn’t be this difficult.

When you have a defense playing as well as USC’s is this season, it shouldn’t be losing to Washington State and having to struggle to a hang-onto-your-fingernails victory over Utah State, both at home, no less.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC quarterback Cody Kessler could have a big day against Cal's porous pass defense.
The Trojans might have the most deceiving 3-1 record in college football at the moment, considering they haven’t played a quality opponent on the road yet and two of their three victories have come against marshmallow soft Hawaii and Boston College.

What their most recent 17-14 escape proved is that defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s almost unbelievably-revived defense is good enough to keep USC in every football game the rest of the way.

But will it matter if the offense can’t shake off the cobwebs that seem to have completely engulfed it?

The screams for coach Lane Kiffin’s job calmed down a bit after a semi-soothing win over BC, but they were back at full roar late Saturday. The reaction is understandable, since it is Kiffin who remains in charge of the sluggish offense, not to mention the play-calling that remains as puzzling as ever.

The undercurrent of dissatisfaction has actually reached out even dangerously deeper than to just the fan base. The Trojans’ list of early 2014 commitments is lagging far behind past seasons, with hardly any four- or five-star kids on the list.

Kiffin might still be able to turn that momentum around, of course, if he can find some way to juice up an offense that could never find its rhythm against Utah State. Tre Madden ran decently enough at tailback, but the running game was never complemented by play-action passes.

At least the Trojans throw downfield occasionally now, but almost always to Marqise Lee exclusively, which would be fine if it was the old, Biletnikoff Award-winning Marqise. The problem is, he hasn’t shown up yet this season.

The scary part is Utah State spent most of the game single-covering Lee and Nelson Agholor, and Kiffin still couldn’t figure out a way to let Cody Kessler take advantage of it. Some of it has to do with an offensive line that simply isn’t up to USC standards. But then, what do you expect from a kid like left tackle Chad Wheeler, who hadn’t played a down of college football until four weeks ago?

It’s too bad, because with just some normal offensive help, Pendergast’s defense would be getting the national recognition it so richly deserves.


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Inside the Coliseum locker room 

September, 21, 2013
9/21/13
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LOS ANGELES -- Notes, quotes, and anecdotes from the Coliseum after the Trojans (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) defeated Utah State (2-2, 1-0 MWC) by a score of 17-14.

USC head coach Lane Kiffin

Opening statement: “We knew it was a really good team we were going to play. Anytime you have a great player at quarterback (Chuckie Keeton) like they do, it’s going to be hard to take him out of the game. Their defense has played really tough and really physical.”

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Roundtable: Slowing Chuckie Keeton 

September, 19, 2013
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The WeAreSC staff answers questions heading into the Trojans' game vs. Utah State

Which USC defensive player will be most important to help slow Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton?

Garry Paskwietz: Leonard Williams. I think it’s safe to say that any plan to slow Keeton will need to start with pressure. The Aggies quarterback has put up impressive numbers so far this year and his versatility will offer a key matchup for a USC defense that has played well in the first three games. The quickest way the Trojans are going to be able to get to Keeton and disrupt his timing will be from Williams. The sophomore defensive end was consistently applying pressure last week to thwart the Boston College run game, the strength of the Eagles' offense, and now his attention will be shifted to slowing the quarterback for Utah State.

Johnny Curren: Morgan Breslin. The USC defense will need to have a constant presence in the Utah State offensive backfield right from the get-go, and it would be ideal for the Trojans if that pressure came from the front level so they don’t lose anything in terms of their coverage. After all, Keeton is incredibly accurate, completing 78.1 percent of his passes this season, so he certainly appears to have the ability to pick a gambling defense apart. With that in mind, I think that Breslin, the Predator linebacker on the edge, could play a pivotal role. Possessing outstanding pass-rush skills to go along with the speed and athleticism to hang with Keeton, he’ll need to hit the Aggies’ passer early and often, thereby getting in his head and preventing him from finding his groove. If Breslin pressures Keeton on a consistent basis, and the rest of the defense plays disciplined and is able to contain him in the pocket, it could be a long day for the talented USU signal caller.


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HONOLULU -- There was so much talk coming into the game about the USC quarterback situation that the new look Trojans defense went somewhat under the radar.

After a disappointing defensive showing in 2012, the Trojans made a change at the coordinator spot by bringing in Clancy Pendergast to install his 5-2 scheme. There was a lot of hope that the transition would bring about instant results.

Well, if the performance against Hawaii is any indication of what’s in store for this defense, USC fans are going to like what they see in 2013.

The defense wasted no time as Dion Bailey got things started with a sack of Warriors quarterback Taylor Graham on the first play of the game.

On the next drive, true freshman Su’a Cravens got the first of what should be many interceptions in his USC career.

There was more pressure on Graham, lots and lots of pressure. Devon Kennard, Leonard Williams and George Uko were coming from every angle and the Hawaii offensive line simply couldn’t keep up. By the time the game was over the Trojans had notched seven sacks and had four interceptions of Graham.

In fact, the interceptions were the difference in the ballgame. USC was able to convert those interceptions into 18 points and they won by 17 points. You do the math.

The timing of the first-half dominance by the defense couldn’t have been better as the Trojans offense struggled to get going early. In fact, midway through the second quarter the score was 5-3 in favor of the Warriors but it was then that Hayes Pullard intercepted Graham at the Hawaii 30. Cody Kessler quickly hit Nelson Agholor with a pretty 19-yard touchdown pass and the Trojans were up 10-5.

On the next Hawaii drive, Graham was picked by Josh Shaw, who returned it 35 yards for a score and a 17-5 USC lead. From that point on the Trojans basically had the game in hand and the halftime stats showed how dominant the defense had been. Graham completed only six of 20 passes in the first half for 56 yards and he was sacked five times along with the three picks. The rushing numbers weren’t any better for the Warriors with 19 yards on 22 carries.

“We didn’t play very well on offense but we were great on defense,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “I thought it was a very good effort and I liked the aggressiveness that we showed. Hopefully we can continue to improve on that as the season goes along.”

The individual stars were all over the place on the USC defense.

In addition to his opening play sack, Bailey added a third-quarter interception and led the team in tackles with seven. It was a good sign for Bailey, who had been banged up in fall camp with a hip injury in addition to making the position switch from linebacker to safety.

Williams had a pair of sacks to go along with five tackles, Uko had two sacks and Kennard had two tackles for loss along with a forced fumble. There were also encouraging performances from players such as Lamar Dawson and Jabari Ruffin.

If there is a concern coming out of the game it is the situation at cornerback. That spot was already a primary area of emphasis because of the coverage duties for the cornerbacks in the 5-2 defense and the loss of both starting corners during the game doesn’t help. Kevon Seymour left the game early after being on the receiving end of a big hit and Anthony Brown was later forced to leave due to an apparent ankle injury.

Torin Harris and Devian Shelton were the two corners for the remainder of the game and there were mixed results. Harris tied for second on the team with five tackles while Shelton had three tackles and both players had two pass break-ups but there were also some obvious coverage issues that will need to be shored up.

“We will have to get back home and check on the status of guys who were hurt,” Kiffin said. “That’s something that we will definitely have to deal with as we get ready for conference play.”

At the end of the day, however, this was a day to celebrate for the Trojans defense. A check of the final numbers shows some pretty impressive stats; on top of the sacks and interceptions there were also nine tackles for loss, a total of 23 rushing yards and four of 18 third-down conversions for the Warriors. That is some good defense.

Now the Trojans return home to face the wide-open passing offense of Mike Leach and Washington State and they do so with some good confidence about their new defense and what is possible in the coming season.

Dawson eager for his new beginning

August, 26, 2013
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Lamar DawsonCal Sport Media via AP ImagesLamar Dawson has had his moments in two years at USC, but he's eager for a breakout season.

With fall camp now in the books, and the Trojans set to open the 2013 season at Hawaii this Thursday, there's a heightened sense of excitement running through the team. It was evident in the demeanor of the players leaving Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field on late Sunday afternoon following practice.

"It feels good," said junior inside linebacker Lamar Dawson. "I'm just ready to play. We're finally out of camp, and I'm excited to hit someone in a different colored jersey."

And it's Dawson, more than anyone, whose eagerness to hit the field is at what might be an all-time high -- and for good reason.

A prized prospect out of high school in the Class of 2011, Dawson was awarded the famed No. 55 jersey -- once worn by Trojans linebacker greats Junior Seau, Willie McGinest, Chris Claiborne and Keith Rivers -- upon his arrival at USC. He has had his bright moments to be sure, starting 13 games and collecting 102 tackles in his career, but he also has had his struggles, appearing to completely disappear from action at times.

Lamar Dawson
Johnny Curren/ESPNJunior LB Lamar Dawson understands the pressure of wearing No. 55 for the Trojans.
But after a stellar fall camp that came on the heels of an eye-opening spring, Dawson appears poised to break out with his best season yet in a Trojans uniform, and for him, the team's Aug. 29 opener just can't come soon enough.

"I'm ready to get back on the field and show how much I've improved from last year ... to just show my technique and put it all on film," said Dawson, who prepped at Danville (Ky.) Boyle County. "I feel like I've improved in a lot of different ways -- in getting off of blocks, in blitzing, man-coverage, and especially in just knowing the defense."

The first signs of improvement were apparent back in March. Part of an ultra-competitive position battle with Anthony Sarao at WILL linebacker, Dawson immediately took to the Trojans' new 5-2 defensive scheme, installed by Clancy Pendergast. He made plays all over the field, and on a much more consistent basis than he ever did at middle linebacker in the team's previous 4-3 set.

"I really just bought into Coach Pendergast's defense, and I really just took it day-by-day, and I just worked as hard as I could," said Dawson, who stands 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds. "We play with five defensive linemen -- they cover up the linebackers, and we're free to run from sideline to sideline. It really allows myself and the other linebackers to get to the football and to make more plays."

His high level of play extending into fall camp, Dawson has been hard not to notice this month. Taking the vast majority of the snaps with the first-team defense over the course of the last two weeks, his transformation from an unsure athlete with potential into a veteran performer ready to shine appears nearly complete.

Not surprisingly, when the team's season-opening depth chart was released this past Saturday, Dawson found his name sitting atop the list at WILL linebacker all by itself -- a significant feat considering Sarao, as well as promising freshman Quinton Powell, each had a strong month of August as well at the position.

But as the current bearer of one of the program's most revered numbers, Dawson knows that he has much more to prove on the actual field of play -- starting later this week in Honolulu. For the first time, however, it's a challenge he appears ready to take on.

"There's a great deal of pressure that comes with wearing No. 55, and I'm just going to try to take it day-by-day, week-by-week and just do my best to live up to it," Dawson said. "This is a big season for me."

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