USC: Hayes Pullard
And then there is, of course, former USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who mysteriously continues to be out of work.
That makes for an interesting transition period for the Pac-12. Defenses had closed the gap in recent years with several teams ranking in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense. That in itself is an achievement considering the level of offensive skill players and the diversity of offenses in the conference.
But when you look ahead to 2014, there are a lot of quarterbacks coming back to man the league’s high-powered offenses -- Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Taylor Kelly, Sean Mannion, Connor Halliday, etc. You combine that with a massive talent drain of defensive players graduating or declaring for the NFL, plus all of the shifting within the defensive coaching ranks, and you have to wonder if 2014 is going to be the Year of Offense in the Pac-12.
Consider a few of the defensive standouts leaving: Anthony Barr (UCLA), Will Sutton (ASU), Shayne Skov (Stanford), Dion Bailey (USC), Terrance Mitchell (Oregon), Scott Crichton (Oregon State), Trent Murphy (Stanford), Carl Bradford (ASU), Deone Bucannon (Washington State), Trevor Reilly (Utah). There are a couple dozen others who aren’t mentioned who were high-impact guys like Stanford’s Ben Gardner and Ed Reynolds, Eric Kendricks, Jordan Zumwalt and Cassius Marsh from UCLA and Alden Darby, Osahon Irabor and Robert Nelson from ASU.
In total, 19 of the 25 all-conference defensive players from 2013 will be gone next year -- including 10 of 12 from the first team. Plus about a dozen more that were honorable mention are leaving or graduating. That is a major hit to the defensive talent in the league.
The Pac-12 is rarely appreciated nationally for its defensive prowess, either from a player or coaching perspective. And now three of the best coordinators in the conference are gone, one has moved from Washington to USC and another is looking for a gig.
Pac-12 offenses are going to be loaded in 2014 while the defenses have huge question marks. There is plenty of young talent. Guys like Myles Jack (UCLA), Addison Gillam (Colorado) and Su’a Cravens (USC) have all made names for themselves early in their careers. There are also some very notable returners like Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (Oregon), Henry Anderson (Stanford), Shaq Thompson (Washington) and Hayes Pullard (USC).
But a lot more is gone than is coming back.
That opens the door for all sorts of comparison storylines. Wilcox did an outstanding job re-tooling the defense at Washington. And now Pete Kwiatkowski will be measured against what Wilcox was able to accomplish. Likewise, Pendergast probably should have been USC’s MVP for what he did with the Trojans in one season. Now Wilcox has to take over an outfit that is losing a lot of playmakers to the NFL. No doubt, he’ll be compared to his predecessor. Just as Pellum will be compared to Aliotti, and whoever fills the seats at Stanford and UCLA will be compared to what Mason and Spanos were able to accomplish.
The guard is changing, as it does every year in college football. This year it might be the Pac-12 defenses that take a step back.
Pullard, a three-year starter who was also a team captain in 2013, is expected to be one of the leaders of a USC defense that will be adjusting to the a new defensive coordinator in Justin Wilcox, who is expected to implement a primarily 4-3 scheme that will be different from the 5-2 that Pullard ran last year under Clancy Pendergast.
To all the Trojan Family, Its been Decided. I will be back for #OneMoreYear. One Team, One Family, One HeartBeat.. Big things in 2014!— Hayes Pullard lll (@FightOn10) January 13, 2014
After starting for his first two seasons at USC as an outside linebacker under Monte Kiffin in a 4-3, Pullard moved to an inside linebacker spot in 2013 and was named second-team All-Pac-12 and led the Trojans in tackles with 94.
In his three seasons at USC, Pullard has 282 tackles, including 18 tackles for loss and six sacks.
The decision by Pullard to stay for his senior season is a boost to a USC defense that has lost starters George Uko and Dion Bailey as early entries to the NFL draft.
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.
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.
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.
We could try to quantify how much better USC is under Ed Orgeron the past six games compared to Lane Kiffin during the season's first five, but that really is pretty easy. We don't need numbers. We need only three words:
Everything is better.
USC is less sloppy. It's more disciplined. It's protecting the football. USC is playing better offense. It's even playing better defense, if you consider the schedule. It's better on special teams.
Obviously, USC is playing with far more passion. And you can't undersell this: Its players are having way more fun.
"We absolutely love him," USC quarterback Cody Kessler said after the 20-17 win over Stanford. "We'd run through a brick wall for him. He has that look in his eye that you can tell that when he talks to you he really does care. I gave him a hug after the game, and I don't know if he'd want me saying this, but I saw his eyes water up. It's awesome when you play with someone who has that same passion."
How can you dispute or diminish that? You can't.
But the question then becomes: Is that enough to hire him to be the next USC head coach? That is, reportedly, the $6 million question.
When you look at how USC is playing and the Trojans' 5-1 record since Orgeron took over, it's impossible to not give his candidacy legitimacy. Further, that already strong résumé will become measurably stronger if the Trojans win out, which would include a victory over highly ranked rival UCLA, and they would thereby finish the regular season with a 10-3 record and a high national ranking.
At that point, Orgeron would own the locker room and probably have significant momentum with the Trojans' fan base. That would make it difficult for athletic director Pat Haden not to hire him.
The expectation when Orgeron took over for Kiffin after a humiliating 62-41 loss at Arizona State was the Trojans would play better because the season-long hot-seat talk surrounding Kiffin would be over, thereby allowing players to breathe easier and play looser. That improved play, however, wasn't expected to include a 5-1 record and a win over Stanford, ending a four-game losing streak in the series.
In fact, the Pac-12 blog's expectation was the "Hire Coach O!" talk would end with losses to Stanford and UCLA. The Pac-12 blog was wrong, at least so far. Further, when the Pac-12 blog conceived of writing this column about USC's improvement under Orgeron, it expected to, after giving Coach O a tip of the cap, recommend against hiring him, no matter how the now seemingly charmed season ended.
Yet, after further review, there is not enough evidence to overturn the ruling in the stands and the locker room, at least if USC wins out and wins its bowl game.
The only advice the Pac-12 blog has for Haden, though, is this: Don't allow the emotions of the moment to overrule your long-term vision for this coaching hire. A serious evaluation of Orgeron should begin now, if it hasn't already, and there are myriad considerations besides his popularity among the players.
One doesn't have to look far for examples of internal promotions producing great results: Chris Petersen taking over for Dan Hawkins at Boise State, Chip Kelly taking over for Mike Bellotti at Oregon and David Shaw taking over for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. Although those three programs were already successful, you could make the case that USC's circumstances are similar because, well, it's USC.
The next USC coach isn't rebuilding a program. His job is to maximize the potential of a college football superpower, one that no longer will be yoked with NCAA sanctions after the 2014 recruiting class. Orgeron just might be able to do that.
Of course, we also have precedents that suggest that promoting from within or hiring an interim coach because of his initial success and support of the locker room doesn't always yield long-term success.
Larry Coker took over in Miami after Butch Davis bolted and won a national title in his first season. He went 35-3 his first three seasons, in fact, losing the national title game in Year 2 and winning the Orange Bowl in Year 3. But then things went south and, after a 7-6 season in 2006, he was fired. Coker was a strong short-term answer but not one for the long term.
As interim coach after Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan, Bill Stewart led West Virginia to a stunning upset of No. 3 Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. But after three consecutive 9-4 seasons and an off-the-field controversy, he was pushed aside in favor of his head-coach-in-waiting, Dana Holgorsen.
We know what great college head coaches look like: Urban Meyer and Nick Saban top the list. I'd throw in Bill Snyder at Kansas State. But after them, there are no sure things. Petersen is not a sure thing because he has never been a head coach in an automatic-qualifying conference. Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin has an impressive recent track record, but that track record in an AQ conference is only two years and includes one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in college football history.
The NFL guys such as Jon Gruden, Jeff Fisher and Jack Del Rio? Not sure things by a long shot.
So the risk of hiring Orgeron isn't that much greater. Sure, he went a dismal 10-25 at Ole Miss, but his thus-far-successful audition running the USC program provides a strong counter to that. He's not only learned from his mistakes; he's also coaching in an environment he knows how to navigate. It's also noteworthy that he's clearly motivated his assistant coaches to care about and focus on their present jobs instead of giving USC 60 percent while the other 40 percent pining about their future employment.
The apparent formula for an Orgeron administration would go like this: He plays the CEO and lets his coaches coach, which means Clay Helton runs the offense, Clancy Pendergast runs the defense and John Baxter runs the special teams. Orgeron leans on his strengths: motivation, chemistry, emotions and recruiting.
The big question would then be whether Orgeron can be consistently and obsessively detail-oriented as all good head coaches are. Can he maintain discipline and run a tight ship? Will he lead a recruiting effort based on insightful evaluation rather than star rating? Can he skillfully handle all the off-the-field responsibilities that head coaches deal with?
My guess is that Haden immediately realized after the Stanford game -- and not before -- that Orgeron deserved at least a raised eyebrow. Haden will be practically forced to make a more thorough evaluation of Orgeron if the Trojans beat UCLA.
"When you have a father figure like Coach O treating us all like sons and putting us under his arm, we want to run through a brick wall for him," linebacker Hayes Pullard said. "One team, one heartbeat, we wanted to carry that over. We wanted to show him that we are with him no matter what."
That's inspiring and meaningful. But there's more to being a head coach than getting your players to run through brick walls.
At this point, however, Orgeron is not only getting his guys to run through those brick walls, he's also getting them to hit the wall in the correct place and use good technique while doing so.
With Hayes Pullard, a team captain with 28 starts and 201 career tackles to his credit, serving as the leader at middle linebacker, the entire unit has taken off in their first year playing in new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s aggressive 5-2 scheme.
“I give all the credit to Coach Pendergast, coach [Ed] Orgeron and coach [Mike] Ekeler,” said the 6-foot-1 and 230-pound Pullard, who has compiled 13 tackles in 2013. “They put us in the position to be able to play fast. I’m enjoying it so much. It’s spread around where people are making plays on the perimeter, in the middle, we’re forcing turnovers. ... It’s just a fun atmosphere when we’re out there. Everybody is just focused on doing their assignments and doing everything they can to achieve our goal -- to be a dominant defense.”
And so far at least, it's mission accomplished. But neither Pullard nor his teammates have yet to face an offense this season that resembles anything close to what Utah State (2-1) will bring to the Coliseum this Saturday. The Aggies average a whopping 49.3 points and 550.3 total yards per game, and it’s their dual-threat Heisman candidate at quarterback, Chuckie Keeton, who engineers it all. Running USU’s spread offense to perfection this season, the 6-2, 200-pound junior has completed 78.1 percent of his passes for 923 yards and 12 touchdowns with just one interception, while also leading the team with 187 rushing yards.
“I guess the closest thing would be Oregon as far as how they can hurt you in all aspects,” said USC head coach Lane Kiffin earlier this week when asked if there is another team that showcases an offense similar to Utah State’s. “They run the ball really well, [Keeton] throws the ball really well, and then he takes off and runs it. So, I guess that would be the closest. ... It’s a little bit of a different style, but at the same time they’re really explosive, and they have really good players around him, too. ... Good receivers [and] a very veteran offensive line that returns five starters. This is a top-25 team.”
And Kiffin isn’t alone in his line of thinking, particularly when it comes to Keeton, who led the Aggies to a breakthrough 11-2 record in 2012.
“Oh my gosh, watching him on film, he’s a great player,” Pullard said. “He can pass, he loves to run [and] he loves to attack defenses. I can’t say anything bad about him.”
But if there is a defense out there that appears to have the potential to contain Keeton -- which according to Pullard, is all you can hope to do -- it just might be USC. After all, on top of the talent the Trojans have, Pendergast has made a name for himself as an architect of defenses that are geared to shut down uptempo, spread attacks.
And while it remains to be seen exactly how the USC defense does, in fact, plan to slow Keeton and the rest of the Utah State offense down, so long as Pullard and his teammates perform at the same high level that they have all season long up to this point, while also staying disciplined and following the game plan put in place by Pendergast, there’s little reason to doubt that they’ll be more than up for the challenge.
“We talked about it on Monday, and everybody is taking the initiative, and everybody is being accountable for themselves,” Pullard said. “It’s just about being responsible for your duty when you’re out there and making sure that you do your assignment, and then we’ll go from there.”
Kiffin confirmed he will call plays in 2013 and went into detail about why it will be important for this team to run the football. Lee talked about self-motivation while both Lee and Kiffin gave a lot of praise for Nelson Agholor. Finally, Pullard talked about the 5-2 defense and leadership.
Running it up
“We were 6-1 at that time against Arizona and we were in command of that game, up 15 with the ball,” Kiffin said. “Their crowd was starting to leave, and we were going to be coming back to play Oregon in a big game but we missed that play and a bunch of plays the rest of the game there.
“I hope that as we get to this season here that we are more consistent in our running game so that when we get to games like that, like we have over the years, that we're able to finish those games out especially on the road like that by running the ball and being more physical. That's been a big emphasis this spring, and obviously it will be a big emphasis as we move into next week.”
Madden's in the game
One of the storylines not many people are talking about with the Trojans this year is that Tre Madden will be back in action after tearing a knee ligament and missing 2012.
“Tre Madden has come along, he's going to be at 100 percent healthy,” Kiffin said. “That was probably an injury that was under the radar a year ago when it happened. But us as coaches knew that was a significant injury for our team at that time. Tre was having as good of a spring as anyone on our entire roster after moving him to running back, a kid that's 6-foot tall, 220 pounds and runs a 4.5, we have not had that for a while here.
“We feel like with the entire running back group and the fact that Tre is healthy, we have that position back to where it was in that 2004, 2005 range and as you break down the last seven years here at USC, that position has not been what it once was.”
According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Trojans turned the ball over 34 times in 2012, which was the fourth most in the FBS. USC also converted on just 31 percent of third downs, which ranked No. 105 in the country. Kiffin addressed both of those issues.
“As we look at where we need to improve, it’s not some things that maybe you guys think,” Kiffin said. “It's things that we believe within our program are very easy to look at with what happened last year. It's about not turning the football over, it's about playing better on third down and it's about playing better in the red zone.”
Motivation for Marqise
As the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation's best receiver, Lee has already achieved success that most receivers can only dream about. But he makes it clear that staying motivated in not a problem.
“Me, as a player, I don't go into seasons focused on the hype and things that come along with it,” Lee said. “The Heisman, the Biletnikoff, whatever you want to talk about, is the last thing in my mind. I'm self-motivated, and I've pushed the issue. You can ask Hayes (Pullard). I'm self-motivated because the coach can motivate you, but you should be able to motivate yourself.
“At the end of the day, I feel like the coach is there to motivate you but, then again, how about if it doesn't hit the spot to get a player to keep going? So I take it upon myself, you know, to continue to work hard. I know if I do it they're going to do it and if they're going to do it, why shouldn't I do it? It's only going to get you better and get you where you need to go so that's what I'm going to do in order to get it.”
Lee will be playing for the first time without Robert Woods, something that hasn’t happened since high school. He made it clear that he thinks Agholor has the ability to step up and be the next great USC receiver.
“Robert overall was a great player, but we have one player, Nelson Agholor. I think I can look over and look at him being Rob,” Lee said. “He does an amazing job in class, both on and off the field. I think Nelson stepped in Rob's shoes and fulfilled them as good as possible, so I think we will be all right.”
“As Marqise mentioned, the development of Agholor, we saw it this spring,” Kiffin added. “Marqise missed some time during the spring, so not only did we see Nelson perform as the No. 2 receiver, he was also performing as the No. 1 receiver. He's a player with a skill set and he's a unique kid, very exciting and active on the field, and he's a great leader already, even though he has just finished up his first year.”
On the new 5-2 defense: “It's been a great transition. Pendergast brings that swagger that's been great for us, with the help of Coach Orgeron and Coach Ekeler being great coaches; they simplified this defense for us guys to go out there and just play fast and play to the best of our ability. I believe we're going to continue to get better.”
On being a leader: “My freshman year, T.J (McDonald) told me to lead by example, and that's the leadership role I've been trying to take on. He took me under his wing when I was the pup that I was and at this moment, it's me trying to groom other leaders. So when I get my two years over at USC and when I leave, I have leaders that are going to take up what I showed them as well and have that carry on.”
“It was a very physical practice,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “I liked the defensive mentality at the end in the goal-line drill. It’s been a very competitive spring. It reminds me of the spring when we first got here. We need that to establish a competitive mindset.”
As Kiffin mentioned, the Trojans ended practice with a goal-line drill that got started with Hayes Pullard stuffing a run up the middle by Buck Allen. Justin Davis tried to slash into the end zone, but J.R. Tavai came across the line and knocked the ball out as he was bringing Davis to the ground, although Randall Telfer recovered for the offense. Davis did punch in a score at the end for the offense. There was also a little skirmish between a few offensive and defensive players after one play.
“It’s always a tough line between physical play and getting penalties with the goal-line drill,” Kiffin said.
Kiffin speaks with Enfield
Kiffin said he talked with new USC basketball coach Andy Enfield on Sunday night, prior to the announcement that Enfield had taken the job.
“I talked to him about the program and about working with Pat (Haden) and Max (Nikias),” Kiffin said. “I think it’s a great hire. He brings an exciting style of play and kids will want to play in that style. He’s also a guy who understands the academic side of being at a private school.”
Brady on campus
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady worked out on the USC campus Tuesday, throwing passes to his new receiver, Danny Amendola. Kiffin said it is common for NFL quarterbacks to use the USC facilities in the offseason, mentioning Philip Rivers, Drew Brees and Matt Cassel as players who had thrown recently on the USC field.
* Anthony Brown knocked away a pass at the sideline intended for Nelson Agholor. Brown has put together a very solid spring while consistently in the lineup as one of the starting corners.
* A few plays later, however, Brown went for a pick on a rope thrown over the middle by Max Wittek and missed, allowing De’Von Flournoy to go for a long gain. Flournoy also had a touchdown later in the drill when he caught a pass from Max Browne and split the safeties with his speed.
* Victor Blackwell caught a short pass and got loose from Torin Harris with a nice shake move.
* Kevin Greene had a sack on Cody Kessler.
* Ryan Henderson had a pick off Kessler, who was trying to get the ball to Blackwell.
* George Uko had a nice play to move along the line of scrimmage in pursuit of Davis and hold him to no gain.
* Davis provided yet another dazzling touchdown run, this one a 45-yarder behind a block from Kevin Graf.
* Allen had a 20-yard gain down the left sideline thanks to Jahleel Pinner, who got one block at the line and then hustled down field to get another block.
* Browne hooked up on a 25-yard pass to walk-on Robby Kolanz on the right sideline.
Notables in attendance
Nico Falah, Steven Mitchell, Adoree’ Jackson, Dwight Williams, Chase Blakley
When camp opened up earlier this month, however, it was redshirt sophomore Anthony Sarao who was lining up with the first unit, with Dawson running primarily with the second group.
Athletic and physical, Sarao first made a name for himself last season as a reserve and on special teams, and he excelled right from the get-go this spring, proving to be more than capable in his extended role. And while Sarao's strong play has continued throughout March, it’s been Dawson who has taken his game to a whole new level the past couple of weeks.
With both players establishing themselves as two of the defense’s most promising performers, the competition at WILL linebacker has developed into one of the spring’s more interesting position battles.
“I would think that Lamar Dawson is probably our most improved player on our team, and Anthony would be in the top five,” Kiffin said after Thursday’s practice. “They have both had great camps.”
It’s been Dawson, in fact, who has arguably been playing the best football of his career, showcasing improved instincts, speed and playmaking skills. Rewarded with a greater number of reps with the first team defense this week, Kiffin believes Dawson’s performance is directly tied in with his experience and physical maturity.
“I just think it’s a guy going into his third year and sometimes the light just clicks on and his body looks better, he’s getting stronger, he’s playing a lot lower, he’s playing more physical on special teams and on defense,” Kiffin said. “A majority of the guys take a couple of years, and we’re seeing that with guys like Lamar going into their third year who are really shining, and Anthony a year behind that is doing really well.”
With both Dawson and Sarao playing at such a high level, the competition for the starting WILL linebacker spot will likely extend into the fall. But as they continue to push each other, no matter who ultimately lines up with the first group this fall, it’s safe to say that the Trojans are likely to receive some very strong production out of the position.
Max Wittek (6-foot-4, 235 pounds, RS So.) OR Cody Kessler (6-1, 215, RS So.) OR Max Browne (6-5, 215, Fr.)
Wittek stepped back into the rotation on Tuesday after missing three practices due to a sprained MCL, and while he showed some rust, USC coach Lane Kiffin is optimistic he’ll soon return to his old form, making this competition one to watch once again. Of the trio, Kessler continued to be the most consistent this week, with Browne showing promise at times.
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Cody Kessler (6-1, 215, RS So.) OR Max Browne (6-5, 215, Fr.); Max Wittek (6-foot-4, 235 pounds, RS So.)
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Max Wittek (6-foot-4, 235 pounds, RS So.) OR Cody Kessler (6-1, 215, RS So.) OR Max Browne (6-5, 215, Fr.)
Silas Redd (5-10, 200, Sr.); D.J. Morgan (5-10, 190, RS. Jr.) OR Tre Madden (6-1, 220, RS So.) OR Javorious Allen (6-1, 210, RS So.) OR Justin Davis (6-1, 215, Fr.)
With a full season under his belt at USC, Redd looks comfortable and focused as the starter. Morgan showcased a couple of big plays this week, while Madden looked much sharper than you might imagine a year removed from his knee injury. Davis, meanwhile, has been perhaps the hit of the early-entrant group so far, making the most of his limited carries in practice.
Soma Vainuku (6-0, 250, RS. So.); Jahleel Pinner (5-11, 225, So.)
Two of the team's hardest workers, Vainuku and Pinner alternated as the team’s primary fullbacks. It remains to be seen, however, if they’ll take on a bigger role in the offense.
Biggest individual plays
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In a vote of the conference's head coaches, Lee was chosen as the top offensive player. He also was the only sophomore in the conference unanimously selected to the Pac-12 first team this season, during which he totaled 112 catches, 1,680 yards and 14 receiving touchdowns.
One other Trojan, senior center Khaled Holmes, was selected as a first-teamer. Receiver Robert Woods, defensive end Morgan Breslin, cornerback Nickell Robey and safety T.J. McDonald were all second-team honorees, as was Lee as a return specialist.
Thirteen USC players earned honorable mention, with quarterback Matt Barkley, running back Silas Redd, tight end Xavier Grimble and offensive linemen Max Tuerk and John Martinez leading the way on offense.
Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Arizona's Matt Scott, two quarterbacks who beat Barkley this season, were named the Pac-12's first- and second-team signal-callers, respectively.
Barkley will leave USC having never been a first-team all-conference performer, which is remarkable considering the conference records he owns for all-time passing yards and touchdowns.
USC defensive linemen Leonard Williams, George Uko and Wes Horton and linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard received honorable mention.
Williams also was named the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year, after recording a 7.5-sack, two-fumble-recovery season.
Kicker Andre Heidari, punter Kyle Negrete and reserve linebacker Tony Burnett rounded out USC's honorable-mention recipients on special teams.
One inquiry: Was he happy with his team's defensive performance?
Te'o shook his head.
"We don't like being scored on," he said. "Although it happened, we came back and made sure that it wouldn't happen again."
About an hour later, USC safety T.J. McDonald was asked the same question as he left the Coliseum for the final time.
"I felt like it was one of our better efforts," he said. "I mean, they scored one time."
Is that, perhaps, one of the main reasons why this USC team went from preseason No. 1 to postseason No. 30-something, and the Irish did the opposite?
McDonald was relatively happy with allowing one touchdown (and five field goals). So were his USC teammates and coaches. Te'o wasn't.
Settling, clearly, was an issue for the Trojans this season.
What was their best performance of the year? They beat only one respectable team by more than 13 points; that was the Arizona State Sun Devils two weeks ago. Their other wins over teams with more than three victories this season came by 13, 10 and 10 points.
For all the expectations placed on them by the outside world, maybe their own expectations should've been higher.
Will Woods be back?
USC has a few draft-eligible players who could feasibly declare early over the next two months, but the most interesting case is that of receiver Robert Woods, who has seen his stock drop significantly this season.
At this time last year, Woods was thought of as a surefire first-round pick and potentially a top-15 guy upon being draft eligible following his junior year this season. Now he seems to be vacillating between the first and second rounds.
Will Woods leave? He says he doesn't know yet, although he said he will "probably" submit a pre-draft evaluation request to the NFL draft advisory board by the mid-December deadline.
"I gotta see what will benefit me more, staying or leaving," Woods said.
Woods said his decision will not be made solely by the draft-round grade he receives from the board. Asked if he expected his teammates to try to sway him in the coming weeks, Woods laughed.
"I'm not sure how that works," Woods said. "I guess I gotta talk to T.J. and Matt [Barkley]."
He said sophomore-to-be Max Wittek coming back as the Trojans' quarterback "definitely has an impact" on his decision.
"I believe in Max," Woods said. "I know he has a strong arm and he can get me the ball."
First-year USC receivers coach Tee Martin said he's been privately lobbying for Woods to come back since he took the job in the spring.
"Whichever way he goes, I'll support him," Martin said. "Robert Woods is one of the best receivers in college football."
If Wittek isn't the Trojans' starting quarterback next September, it'd be a sizable surprise, despite coach Lane Kiffin's efforts last week to portray the race as renewed between Wittek and Cody Kessler next spring. Throw in to that mix likely January enrollee Max Browne, who Kiffin didn't mention by name.
But Kessler's name wasn't uttered once in USC's coaches and players’ postgame interviews on Saturday night. Whenever next season was brought up, Wittek's name was mentioned along with it.
Receiver Marqise Lee said he's "going to make sure to get a lot of time together" with Wittek in the offseason.
"He's probably going to see me more than he sees his parents," Lee said.
USC center Khaled Holmes, a senior, said Wittek's performance stepping in for the injured Matt Barkley reminded him of Cyrus Hobbi replacing Holmes earlier in the year at Stanford.
"He did a great job," Holmes said of Wittek. "Much like the situation Cyrus was put in earlier this year, it was an unbelievably difficult situation."
McDonald gathered his defensive teammates for a brief pregame speech in the locker room before Kiffin addressed the greater team.
His message: "All that matters is the guys that are in this room right now. All the outsiders might try to pick at us, but all that matters is these guys right here."
He said his teammates responded admirably.
"Guys were pumped up," McDonald said. "I can't say enough about these guys.
"You could see the extra fight for the seniors. But we came up short."
USC linebacker Hayes Pullard said he felt more energy as a result of the captain's words.
"We just dug in deep and gave it our all," Pullard said.
Message to the fans?
Several players were asked after Saturday's game what they would tell fans who were disappointed with a five-loss season, considering the preseason expectations.
"Great teams lose," Lee said. "They're fans. It's harder than it looks."
Running back Curtis McNeal, who left the stadium with a sling on his left shoulder, said things just didn't go the Trojans' way. He couldn't elaborate any further when pressed.
"We had every opponent down to a T," he said. "I guess it just wasn't in the cards for us."
Kiffin was asked about the same topic in his postgame news conference.
"I'm disappointed, too,” he said. “I hear 'em. I feel 'em. Those aren't our standards here, regardless of the amount of scholarships or any of those things that we're under. We've gotta do better. And obviously that starts with me."
Final notes: Lee broke Woods' conference record for receptions in a season with 53-yard grab in the fourth quarter. He now has 112 catches for 1,680 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. In the five games this season that USC turned the ball over as many or fewer times than its opponent, the Trojans were 5-0. In the seven games USC had more turnovers than the opposition? 2-5. Notre Dame's Te'o on his pregame handshake with Barkley, who was out for the game with a sprained throwing shoulder: "I just told him to enjoy it. He's going to have a successful career in the NFL and in life itself."