USC: Hayes Pullard

USC offseason storylines: linebackers

May, 20, 2014
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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.

Pac-12 all over Lott watch list

May, 19, 2014
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It’s time to start thinking about preseason watch lists. And the first one out is the Lott IMPACT Trophy, which is given annually to the defensive player who has the biggest “impact” on his team -- impact being an acronym for Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community and Tenacity.

The award is in its 11th year.

Of the 42 players on this year’s watch list, 11 come from the Pac-12:
UCLA’s Anthony Barr was the 2013 winner. Cal’s Dante Hughes was the league’s only other winner, in 2006.

Other previous winners include Manti Te’o (Notre Dame, 2012), Luke Kuechly (Boston College, 2011), J.J. Watt (Wisconsin, 2010), Jerry Hughes (TCU, 2009), James Laurinaitis (Ohio State, 2008), Glenn Dorsey (LSU, 2007), DeMeco Ryans (Alabama, 2005) and David Pollack (Georgia, 2004).

You can click here for the complete watch list.

The best of spring football at USC 

April, 23, 2014
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Here’s our look back at the Trojans’ progress during spring.

MVP

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsWill Nelson Agholor become the latest standout receiver at USC?
Garry Paskwietz: Nelson Agholor
Johnny Curren: Agholor
Greg Katz: Agholor, Hayes Pullard

Curren: From the start of spring ball to last Saturday’s finish no other player performed at such a sky-high level, and with such consistency, as Agholor. A practice didn’t ever seem to go by without the talented junior coming up with at least one highlight catch that caught everyone’s attention. An already solid player heading into the spring, he got even better and appears poised to take his place as the next great USC wide receiver.

Biggest surprise

GP: Zach Banner
JC: Scott Starr
GK: Banner

Katz: It has to be redshirt freshman offensive right tackle Zach Banner, who came out of nowhere -- thanks to the wonders of hip surgery -- to claim the starting position. He probably surprised not only his teammates with his newfound agility but himself as well. Still a work in progress, he is not only turning into a grizzly bear on roller skates but potentially a future All-Pac-12 selection. When Banner is able to stay at pad level, it’s like a tsunami of human girth stream rolling a mismatched opponent.

LOS ANGELES -- USC Trojans true freshman offensive left guard Toa Lobendahn stood in the west end zone of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and wondered if he had really started in the annual spring game on Saturday in front of 17,500 tanning, cardinal and gold-clad fans.

“It was overwhelming. Well, not really overwhelming but joyful,” Lobendahn said moments after completing his first spring game. “It was great being in front of all these fans.”

It’s been quite a spring of learning, performing and adjusting to life on a college campus for Lobendahn, who left La Habra (Calif.) High after the 2013 fall semester of his senior year to enroll in time for spring practice.


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Video: USC linebacker Hayes Pullard

April, 17, 2014
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Kevin Gemmell talks with USC linebacker Hayes Pullard about spring ball and the transition to a new coaching staff.

Poll: Best three-headed monster?

March, 28, 2014
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Which Pac-12 team has the best overall three-headed monster?

To review what the heck we are writing about: On offense, that's an elite combination at quarterback, running back and receiver. On defense, it's an elite combination of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.

SportsNation

Which Pac-12 unit has the best three-headed monster?

  •  
    15%
  •  
    44%
  •  
    23%
  •  
    7%
  •  
    11%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,817)

We've reviewed South offenses and North offenses and South defenses and North defenses.

But now we want your take on whose troika is the mightiest. Who has the surest thing heading into 2014?

On offense, we like Oregon in the North and Arizona State in the South.

Oregon offers QB Marcus Mariota, RB Byron Marshall and WR Bralon Addison. Arizona State counters with QB Taylor Kelly, RB D.J. Foster, WR Jaelen Strong. That right there is a tough call.

The Ducks probably have a lead at quarterback, but you could say the Sun Devils are better at the other two spots. Or you might not.

On defense, we like USC in the South and Stanford in the North.

USC offers LB Hayes Pullard, DT Leonard Williams and S Su'a Cravens, while Stanford has LB A.J. Tarpley, DE Henry Anderson and S Jordan Richards.

That's a group of six players who figures to earn All-Pac-12 honors.

First you might choose which crew you like on offense and which one you like on defense. Then you could ask yourself which one you'd most want to play for your team.

It's nice to have star power at all three levels on either side of the ball. But your question today is whose stars shine the brightest.

Defense 3-headed monsters: Pac-12 South

March, 26, 2014
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You remember the three-headed monster, right? It's about returning production that will scare -- terrify! --opponents. Or not.

On offense, it's elite combinations at quarterback, running back and receiver.

On defense, it's elite combinations of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.

This year, we're breaking things down by division. We've already done offense for the South and North divisions.

Next up: South Division defensive three-headed monsters.

1. USC

LB Hayes Pullard, DT Leonard Williams, S Su'a Cravens

The skinny: Pullard was second-team All-Pac-12 after leading the Trojans with 94 tackles. While DE Devon Kennard led the Trojans with nine sacks last year, Williams was a force inside with six. It's also possible, of course, that attention to Williams, a certain preseason All-American, will open things up for a DE/OLB, such as J.R. Tavai. Cravens is likely to become as a true sophomore an all-conference performer. He had four interceptions last year, second on the team.

2. UCLA

LB Eric Kendricks, OLB Kenny Orjioke, CB Ishmael Adams

The skinny: Kendricks ranked third in the Pac-12 with 8.8 tackles per game last year. Does he finally break through on the all-conference team after two years as an honorable mention? Orjioke is the frontrunner to replace Anthony Barr. He's 6-foot-4, 240 pounds and has tons of potential. He, however, had just 12 tackles and two sacks as a sophomore. Adams led the Bruins with four interceptions last year.

3. Arizona

LB Scooby Wright, DE Reggie Gilbert, "spur" LB Tra'Mayne Bondurant

The skinny: Wright earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 as a true freshman, finishing with 83 tackles, including 9.5 coming for a loss. With both MLB Jake Fischer and weakside LB Marquis Flowers gone, he seems like a favorite to lead the team in tackles, even if he stays at strongside backer. Gilbert ranked second on the team with four sacks, though it's possible the Wildcats defense will do some juggling to increase anemic sack numbers this fall. Or a new guy, such as LB Antonio Smothers or DL Jeff Worthy, will break through. Bondurant, a hybrid LB/safety, led the Wildcats with four interceptions in 2013.

4. Arizona State

LB Salamo Fiso, DE/OLB Viliami Latu, S Damarious Randall

The skinny: The Sun Devils are replacing nine starters on defense, but Randall and Fiso are two of the three returning starters. It is notable that coach Todd Graham has been moving guys around on defense this spring, so ultimate positions are a matter of conjecture at this point. Fiso ranked fourth on the team with 71 tackles. Sophomore Latu might have a lead in the battle to replace Carl Bradford at the highly productive "devil" LB position. Randall had three interceptions last year.

5. Utah

LB Gionni Paul, OLB Jacoby Hale, S Eric Rowe

The skinny: Paul, a Miami transfer, is drawing raves this spring. He was a terror on the scout team a year ago. Hale is likely to replace Trevor Reilly, who led the Utes in tackles and sacks last year, at the "stud" linebacker. He was second on the Utes with 10 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks a year ago. As for the Utes’ leader for interceptions, well, funny you should ask about a team that had just three picks all of last year, tied for fewest in the nation. We're going with Rowe, even though he didn't have a pick in 2013 and had just one in 2012.

6. Colorado

LB Addison Gillam, TBA, CB Greg Henderson

The skinny: Along with Wright and UCLA's Myles Jack, Gillam was a true freshman LB revelation last year. He led the Buffaloes with 107 tackles. He might be a good bet to lead the team in sacks, too. The Buffs are replacing leading sacker Chidera Uzo-Diribe (4), and it's unclear who will fill that void. D-lineman Samson Kafovalu is a possibility, but he's sitting out spring focusing on academics. Derek McCartney -- yeah, that McCartney -- has been playing well this spring. Henderson led the Buffaloes with four picks a year ago.

Trojans look comfy upon return from break

March, 26, 2014
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As his USC team returned from spring break and got back into the practice routine on Tuesday, Steve Sarkisian said he was focused on three key areas of fundamentals to test his players.

“For the most part our conditioning was good [on Tuesday], so it showed a willingness by the players to work during spring break,” Sarkisian said. “Coming out of the break there were some key things that our staff wanted to focus on, the first one being pad level. That was a point of emphasis today, especially late in the practice. The ability of our defense to tackle and attempt to strip the football was another priority, and I thought that was evident. And I thought the quarterbacks made quicker decisions today, which was key coming out of the break.”

Sarkisian continues to emphasize the uptempo aspect of practice, which is combined with multiple periods of walk-through teaching each day that serve as a direct contrast to the frenzied pace of team drills.

“I think the players are getting more comfortable with the uptempo part of things,” Sarkisian said. “Things even got a little feisty at the end, which is good. But I always say that if you have time to yack at the guy across from you, then we aren’t going fast enough.”

There were several defensive players who stood out on Tuesday, including Hayes Pullard with a big hit on Ty Isaac, J.R. Tavai with a sack of Cody Kessler, Charles Burks with a sack of Jalen Greene, Chris Hawkins with a pass breakup against Darreus Rogers, and a solid run stop up the middle from Claudeson Pelon and Anthony Sarao.

“I thought our communication was much better defensively,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve put in a lot for the defense and it’s been a challenge, but I think this is one area where the walk-throughs really help us, not just the guys on the field but the 20 guys who aren’t practicing are getting valuable reps.”

There was continued experimentation along the offensive line as early entry freshman Toa Lobendahn got extended work with the first team at left guard, while the second-unit tackles were switched for a while with Zach Banner moving to the right side and Jordan Austin switching to the left.

“We looked at film of Lobendahn over the break and said, ‘This guy has a real chance,’ ” Sarkisian said. “He’s a real mature kid, he works at it, he studies, he prepares.”

It was also a good day for the passing game, as both Buck Allen and George Farmer stood out. Allen had a pair of long gains on wheel routes from Kessler, and Farmer, who was wearing a yellow jersey to signify no contact, caught a deep ball from Max Browne as well as a nice grab on an intermediate route. Browne also hit Nelson Agholor with a deep pass.

Among those in attendance at practice were signees Damien Mama, Adoree' Jackson and Ajene Harris, as well as verbal commit Ricky Town.

Talent drain leaves Pac-12 defenses in flux

January, 20, 2014
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The Pac-12 has seen a flurry of defensive coordinator movement over the last couple of weeks -- starting with the power struggle for former Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to the recent exoduses of Stanford’s Derek Mason to Vanderbilt as head coach and UCLA’s Lou Spanos to the Tennessee Titans as linebackers coach. Oregon’s promotion of Don Pellum to defensive coordinator to replace Nick Aliotti will also shine a spotlight on the Ducks’ defense in 2014 and beyond.

And then there is, of course, former USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who mysteriously continues to be out of work.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan, Scott Crichton
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesOregon State defensive end Scott Crichton is among the Pac-12 defensive stars entering the NFL in 2014.
Look at the top five scoring defenses in the Pac-12 in 2013: Stanford, Oregon, USC, Washington and UCLA, respectively. All five have had defensive coordinators in flux in the young offseason.

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.

USC LB Pullard staying for senior season

January, 13, 2014
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USC junior linebacker Hayes Pullard announced on his Twitter account that he will return to the Trojans for the 2014 season.

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.

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.

Pendergast's future at USC up in the air

December, 23, 2013
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With the news that junior safety Dion Bailey will make himself available for the NFL draft, that is one piece of the Trojans' defensive puzzle that is known for next year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trojans hitting stride at right time

November, 24, 2013
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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.

Orgeron makes Haden's search complicated

November, 18, 2013
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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.

[+] EnlargeOrgeron
AP Photo/Don RyanUnder interim coach Ed Orgeron, the Trojans are 5-1. USC faces Colorado on Saturday.
The epidemic injuries that were once an excuse for poor play are now further grounds to give credit to Orgeron and his staff for finding a way to get it done under adverse circumstances.

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.

USC, Pullard gearing up for Keeton and Co.

September, 19, 2013
9/19/13
3:16
PM PT
The dominating performances put on by the USC defense through the first three weeks of the season have been the undeniable highlight so far for a Trojans team that currently sits at 2-1 and looks to be headed in the right direction after an impressive 35-7 bounce-back victory against Boston College last weekend.

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.

[+] EnlargeHayes Pullard
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireMiddle linebacker Hayes Pullard has taken a leadership role on USC's aggressive defense.
A fast and swarming bunch, the first-team Trojans defense has yet to give up a touchdown in 2013 and currently ranks in the top 10 nationally in a slew of categories, including No. 2 in rushing defense (allowing 43.7 yards per game), No. 3 in sacks (four per game), No. 6 in passes intercepted (six) and No. 4 in total defense (allowing 212.3 yards per game).

“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.”

Media day notes: Kiffin, Lee talk

July, 27, 2013
7/27/13
3:04
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The Trojans were represented at Pac-12 media day by Lane Kiffin, Marqise Lee and Hayes Pullard, and there were plenty of interesting topics of discussion.

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
[+] EnlargeMarqise Lee
AP Photo/Wily LowDespite coming off a Biletnikoff-winning season, Marqise Lee is having no trouble staying motivated for an encore.
Kiffin was asked about a statement he made about the 2012 season turning against Arizona when a Matt Barkley pass missed an open Robert Woods. He used that as an example of how the Trojans can close out games better with a consistent running attack.

“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.”

Offensive struggles
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.”

[+] EnlargeHayes Pullard
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIHayes Pullard has emerged as a leader, on and off the field, for the Trojans this year.
Next in line
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.”

Pullard pontificates
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.”

SPONSORED HEADLINES

2013 TEAM LEADERS

PASSINGATTCOMPYDSTD
C. Kessler361236296820
RUSHINGCARYDSAVGTD
J. Allen1357855.814
T. Madden1387035.13
RECEIVINGRECYDSAVGTD
M. Lee5779113.94
N. Agholor5691816.46
TEAMRUSHPASSTOTAL
Offense174.2218.1392.3
TEAMPFPAMARGIN
Scoring28.521.37.2