USC: Leonard Williams

USC defense still a work in progress

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
8:00
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As the Trojans move into the fourth week of spring ball drills, the coaches are still searching to balance the desire for physical play with the need to keep players healthy on a reduced roster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poll: Best three-headed monster?

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
1:00
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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
Mar 26
12:00
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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.

Roundtable: Players to watch this month

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
10:00
AM PT
Next week offers a look at the future, the present and the past of USC football. Give one player you are looking forward to seeing at the Los Angeles Nike Camp, one player who will be the talk of the opening week of spring ball, and one player who can improve his NFL stock the most on Pro Day.

Nike Camp

Garry Paskwietz:
When Steve Sarkisian was an assistant coach at USC he saw the Trojans utilize tall and athletic wide receivers such as Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett with a lot of success. Equanimeous St. Brown from Anaheim (Calif.) Servite has a 6-foot-4, 190-pound frame that would seem to offer a similar package of skills, and the Trojans have been very clear in pointing out that fact during the recruiting process. It will be interesting to see how St. Brown compares to the other receivers at the Nike camp, and if he has any connections with USC quarterback commit Ricky Town.

[+] EnlargeRicky Town
Tom Hauck/ESPNTrojans QB commit Ricky Town will get a chance to recruit players at the Los Angeles NFTC this weekend.
Johnny Curren: Defensive tackles such as Rasheem Green from Gardena (Calif.) Serra simply don’t come around very often right in USC’s backyard, and I think that he’s as crucial a target that there is in this class for the Trojans, particular with the possible departure of Leonard Williams following the 2014 season. The linemen one-on-ones are always the highlight of every NFTC, and with a rare combination of 6-foot-5, 269-pound size and exceptional athleticism, I’m really curious to see how Green matches up against the top offensive linemen that Southern California has to offer. From what I’ve seen from him in the past, he has the ability to really dominate at this event.

Greg Katz: For me, it will be quarterback commit Ricky Town, especially if he competes against Josh Rosen. While that could be interesting if both decide to toss it around, the real story will be Town interacting with Trojans recruits who could someday be his teammates. Yes, it’s all about recruiting of players by players, and Town has good reason to be active on Sunday at Redondo Beach (Calif.) Union High. It could be fascinating.

Opening week of spring

GP:
It was a relatively quiet transition year for Kenny Bigelow as a redshirt. After coming in as a top-ranked recruit who many thought would make an immediate impact, Bigelow had time to sit back and watch while learning the college game and spending time in the weight room. That year off should start paying immediate dividends next week when a hungry Bigelow gets a chance to remind everyone why he was such an elite prospect.

JC: Collecting 52 tackles, Su'a Cravens played more like a veteran in 2013 than a freshman, and I expect even bigger things from him in the future starting this spring. Possessing unique playmaking ability to go along with his remarkable physical attributes, I’m particularly interested to see how defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox utilizes his talents in his new scheme. Will Cravens line up at a traditional safety position? Or might Wilcox put him at a possible linebacker/safety hybrid spot, similar to where he showcased Shaq Thompson at Washington? In either case, Cravens has the potential to emerge as a leader of the defense this spring.

GK: The talk of spring ball in the opening week will be -- to the surprise of nobody -- All-American defensive tackle Leonard Williams. With two seasons under his belt, Williams is being touted by some as one of the all-time greats at USC. It figures that even in restricted drills and learning a new system, Williams will look even more destructive in the first week and more noticeably sculptured.

Pro Day

GP:
Marcus Martin was limited at the combine, which didn’t hurt him but it certainly didn’t help him either. Martin has a real opportunity to secure his spot as the top center in the draft and a probable mid-round selection with a solid performance at pro day. He got a boost to his profile recently when Mel Kiper ranked him as the top available center but, as Pete Carroll used to always remind everyone, the NFL simply doesn’t know as much about an early entry player, so Martin can go out and remind them why he deserves that ranking.

JC: Snubbed from the NFL Scouting Combine, Morgan Breslin will receive his first shot to make an impression for scouts at USC’s Pro Day, and I think that he’ll make the most of it. With his senior campaign marred by injury, people forget that he had 13 sacks in 2012. Now apparently healthy, Breslin possesses a tremendous burst off the line, a non-stop motor, and a fierce work ethic that would seemingly make him a welcome addition to any NFL roster. Currently somewhat of a hidden commodity, I think that come March 12 more than a few NFL teams will fall in love with what he can bring to the table.

GK: If he performs, one would think it would have to be Morgan Breslin, who shockingly wasn’t invited to the NFL draft combine. Breslin will apparently have a lot to prove, and a good showing on Pro Day could return him back into the good graces of NFL teams. This is a big day for No. 91.

Spring position breakdowns: DE

March, 4, 2014
Mar 4
9:20
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Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 continues.

Arizona: Coach Rich Rodriguez is confident in both Reggie Gilbert and Dan Pettinato and anxious to get junior-college transfers Jeff Worthy, who also spent a year at Boise State, and Jerod Cody acclimated to the system. Calvin Allen, Jack Banda and Luca Bruno are coming off redshirt seasons and represent a group Rodriguez said the team needs production from.

Arizona State: With the departure of Gannon Conway and Davon Coleman, there is a question about the team's depth at end. Without Will Sutton clogging things up next year, the Sun Devils' lack of experience is even more of a concern. Sean O'Grady backed up Conway and Coleman last year, but ASU has several well-regarded junior-college transfers in Edmond Boateng, Marcus Hardison and Demetrius Cherry.

California: The Bears list seven defensive ends, but former junior-college transfer Kyle Kragen and Puka Lopa gained the most experience last season listed at the rush position. Antione Davis was outgoing starter Dan Camporeale's primary backup, but Brennan Scarlett's return is more important. He started nine games in 2012 and has been cleared to play following a hand issue that cost him the 2013 season. Todd Barr, Sione Sina and recent-transfer Jonathan Johnson are also in the mix.

Colorado: Colorado must replace Chidera Uzo-Diribe, but Juda Parker is back for his senior season, and several others have game experience. Samson Kafovalu is the likely candidate to start opposite him after making 18 tackles in seven games last year. Jimmie Gilbert was Uzo-Diribe's backup, Kirk Poston and De'Jon Wilson also played.

Oregon: The Ducks took a hit with the departure of Taylor Hart, who was named second-team All-Pac-12, but have a talented player in Arik Armstead lined up to take his spot. Armstead started five times in 2013 and left the basketball team midseason to shift his focus back to football. T.J. Daniel, Jason Sloan are projected to be in the mix for playing time.

Oregon State: Scott Crichton is gone, but Dylan Wynn remains and will likely be the Beavers' best defensive player a year after finishing fourth on the team in tackles. Lavonte Barnett, Crichton's primary backup in 2013, and Jaswha James figure to compete for the starting job, but there are two others to keep an eye on. Obum Gwacham recently switched from receiver and Mike Riley has been complimentary of Titus Failauga, who is coming off his redshirt.

Stanford: Henry Anderson has a chance to be one of the best defensive players in the conference and Blake Lueders, who switched from OLB, began the spring atop the depth chart. The intriguing prospect is Luke Kaumatule, who was recruited to play defense but began 2013 as the team's starting tight end. Spring will be important for his development, but his raw ability is impressive.

UCLA: Both Ellis McCarthy and Eddie Vanderdoes were all-Pac-12 honorable mention last season and highlight a talented UCLA defensive line. Their return will help account for the loss of Cassius Marsh, who started 12 games last year. Both McCarthy and Vanderdoes can play inside or outside, but the Bruins listed them both at end. Highly recruited DE Kylie Fitts saw playing time as a true freshman last season.

USC: Leonard Williams, the only sophomore named first-team all-Pac-12 on defense last season, is the best in the conference. Delvon Simmons, who sat out last season after transferring from Texas Tech, has a lot of game experience. He started 12 games for the Red Raiders in 2012 and had regular playing time as a freshman there in 2011. Both Simmons and J.R. Tavai, who was an all-Pac-12 honorable mention selection, can play inside or outside.

Utah: There's no replacing Trevor Reilly, who made 100 tackles despite lingering effects from a torn ACL, but Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick both saw extensive playing time last season. The Utes have five other defensive ends on the roster, but of that group only LT Filiaga made a tackle last season.

Washington: The Huskies are in great shape with the return of Hau'oli Kikaha, a second-team All-Pac-12 selection, Cory Littleton and Evan Hudson. Josh Shirley has 10 career starts, while Joe Mathis and Psalm Wooching provide depth.

Washington State: With Toni Pole expected to move back inside, the depth chart will look similar to how it did going into last season, minus Matt Bock. After making 50 tackles last year, Xavier Cooper will start on one side, with Destiny Vaeao and Lyman Faoliu strong candidates for more playing time. Emmitt Su'a-Kalio is coming off a redshirt, and the Cougars also signed a pair of defensive ends from Hawaii in Kingston Fernandez and Hercules Mata'afa.

Previous positions

Tight end
Quarterback
Running back
Receiver
Offensive line
Defensive tackle

Pac-12 Top 25 for 2013: No. 10

January, 28, 2014
Jan 28
7:00
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Our countdown of the Pac-12’s Top 25 players from the 2013 season continues.

You can review our 2013 preseason Top 25 here.

No. 10: Leonard Williams, DE, USC

2013 numbers: Williams was second on the Trojans with 74 tackles, tied with Devon Kennard for the team-lead with 13.5 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles.

Preseason ranking: unranked

Making the case for Williams: Then interim coach Ed Orgeron thought enough of Williams to predict the defensive end would eventually become a first-round pick and called him the best defensive lineman he's ever coached. On the list of semifinalists for the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the nation's top defensive player, Williams was the lone sophomore. The Florida native was one of three Pac-12 players named to ESPN.com's All-America Team.

The countdown:
No. 11: Marion Grice, RB, Arizona State
No. 12: Xavier Su'a-Filo, OL, UCLA
No. 13: Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford
No. 14: Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State
No. 15: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
No. 16: Deone Bucannon, S, Washington State
No. 17: Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado
No. 18: Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford
No. 19: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
No. 20: Trevor Reilly, DE/OLB, Utah
No. 21: Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State
No. 22: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
No. 23: Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon
No. 24: Josh Huff, WR, Oregon
No. 25: Myles Jack, LB/RB, UCLA

Mailbag: Defending grades, rankings

January, 21, 2014
Jan 21
2:30
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Tired of searching for Richard Sherman memes? Me, neither. But take a break anyway and enjoy the mailbag.

Jack in Boulder, Colo. writes: Pretty harsh with some of your grades, weren’t you?

Kevin Gemmell: I don’t think so. Did anyone in the league deserve an A? No national champions. No BCS bowl game victories. I didn’t do the Stanford review, that one was all Ted. But I thought a B-plus was fair, considering how the season ended and the fact that the Cardinal did lose to an unranked team that didn’t make the postseason along the way. I did do the Oregon review and thought a B was also a fair grade -- considering what the expectations were for the Ducks in 2013 compared to how they finished.

[+] EnlargeStanford
David Madison/Getty ImagesStanford won the Pac-12 and went to the Rose Bowl, but didn't deserve an A.
Arizona State gets the same grade as Stanford because it won its division and had the best overall record in the Pac-12. No small accomplishment.

Outside of that, who deserves a better grade than they received? Some people thought Arizona’s B was a little too generous, given the schedule they played (see the question below, by the way). But they knocked off Oregon, won their bowl game and made huge strides defensively.

Others have said Cal’s F grade was too harsh. But I’m of the opinion that if you don’t beat an FBS team, that’s a fail.

Oregon State’s C-minus feels right, considering what the expectations were.

UCLA’s B-plus was fair from Ted and my B-minus for USC was pretty reflective of the ups and downs of the season.

I thought Ted’s C-minus for Utah was probably generous, but upsetting Stanford warrants something in the average range.

The Washington schools both got Bs because the Cougs exceeded expectations and the Huskies got over the seven-win hump and won their bowl game.

As always, happy to hear arguments in favor for or against changing grades.


Pac-12 Fan in Reno writes: C'mon, Kevin. Arizona at No. 25 in your final poll? It is now becoming apparent that you have some repressed "feelings" for [RichRod] and Arizona. How can you put AU at No. 25 after the way they were so thoroughly humiliated at the hands of relatively pedestrian ASU (No. 20)? AU beat Oregon and ... whom exactly? Their wins came over the likes of UNLV and UTSA. Wow. Impressive. AU will win 8-9 games again next year because they play a bunch of [weak teams]. You really need to admit your bias/obsession and try to move past it. You are better than this.

Kevin Gemmell: Consider the alternative. Who would you put at No. 25? Washington is there in the AP poll at No. 25, but I had the Huskies higher because I thought they finished strong and deserved a higher ranking.

So let’s look at the options, including all of the teams that finished in the final AP rankings or received votes.

Vanderbilt? The Commodores beat an injury-depleted No. 15 Georgia, but the rest of their schedule sets up much like Arizona with sub-.500 competition.

Nebraska? Its signature win was also over No. 22 Georgia. (And yes, Ryan in New York, I know you are going to chime in about UCLA’s win over Nebraska, but you still won’t convince me that wasn’t an amazing win for the Bruins given all that had happened).

Fresno State? Played one ranked team all year (USC) and got blasted by them in the bowl game.

Northern Illinois? Zero ranked teams on the schedule.

North Dakota State? I’ll actually listen to that argument.

Texas Tech? Never beat a top-10 team.

Georgia? See above.

Iowa? Never beat a ranked team.

Ole Miss? It beat LSU, but won just three games in conference. Thank goodness for the eight-game conference schedule. (I can already feel a retort coming on from Chris Low.)

Kansas State? The Wildcats beat a reeling No. 25 Texas Tech team, but had no other victories over ranked opponents.

That brings us to Arizona. It only beat one ranked team all season. But of all the teams listed above, it was the highest-ranked team in No. 5 Oregon.

There are no repressed feelings. But all things being equal -- and I think you can make a case that all of these teams I’ve just listed pretty much being equal -- I’m going to go with the one that showed the greatest improvement on defense from 2012 to 2013 and has one of the country’s most dynamic playmakers. And Arizona beat a team from a BCS conference in its bowl game.

The Wildcats played in “arguably” the toughest, deepest league in college football, had a comparable record and had the best win of all those teams listed above. On a neutral field, I’ll put the Arizona team that played against Boston College against any one of those teams.


Henry in San Juan Capistrano writes: Your colleague Chris Low stated today that the three "marquee" QB's in the P-12 are Hundley, Marcus and Mannion when we all know that it's Kelly, not Mannion, that rounds out that group. Can you set him straight, Kev? You would be doing all P-12 fans a huge favor.

Kevin Gemmell: Can’t it be both? Mannion had the superior passing numbers, a better completion percentage with 1,000 more passing yards and nine more passing touchdowns. He also finished with a higher raw QBR.

Kelly had fewer interceptions and a higher adjusted QBR. He also rushed for 608 yards and had nine rushing touchdowns while Mannion had minus-223 yards rushing and zero rushing touchdowns.

So when push comes to shove, they had an equal amount of total touchdowns accounted for. Mannion had more turnovers (including seven fumbles).

Both quarterbacks are asked to do very different things. Mannion is a pure drop-back passer. That’s not to say that Kelly can’t chuck it. He was fifth in the league 3,635 passing yards and third in passing touchdowns. But he has more zone-read responsibilities than Mannion does.

When Mannion isn’t going through one of his interception spells, he can be one of the top pure passers in college football, but he has his moments of inefficiency. And Kelly, too, has the occasional bad game, when things aren’t clicking. But both are very good at what they are asked to do.


Ryan in New York writes: Kevin, Excellent article on the Pac-12 defenses. But how could you forget perhaps the nation's best interior defensive lineman next year -- Lenny Williams -- when discussing the best defenders in the Pac?

Kevin Gemmell: *Slaps head with palm and shouts “D’oh!”* Yep, Williams is up there as well. Was thinking of younger guys, but he absolutely should be a preseason All-American.

The point of the column wasn’t to say that there are no good defensive players coming back. There are. USC has some. UCLA has some. Stanford and Oregon have some. Pretty much every school has a player or two who is going to get some looks on a preseason all-conference squad.

But given the amount of talented defensive players across the conference that are leaving, combined with coordinators from the top five defensive schools in the conference in 2013, I felt it warranted a column. UCLA fans got after me on Twitter, reminding me of all the young talent the Bruins have coming back. And I agree with all of it. I expect UCLA to be strong defensively. But stronger without Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt? We’ll have to see.

But from a league-wide perspective, the Pac-12 loses a bunch of veteran defenders. When you combine that with the offensive firepower coming back, it makes for an intriguing 2014.


Bob in Menlo Park writes: Kevin, I read your Todd Graham question. I thought I read on the Pac-12 Blog that [athletic director Steve] Patterson signed an agreement with Arizona State not to poach personnel when he went to Texas. Enjoyed your writing and the blog.

Kevin Gemmell: As a matter of fact, you did read that on the blog. Here’s the link.

It’s obviously moot with Charlie Strong landing the job at Texas. If Patterson really wanted Todd Graham, I’m sure there would have been a way to make it work. As Ted points in his piece from November, there isn’t much that can’t be fixed with motivation and money. Contracts can be torn up in lieu of checks.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. But if Graham continues at this current pace -- winning division championships and posting outstanding conference records, he’s going to start getting phone calls. What’s an acceptable time frame for a coach to move on? Three years? Five? Seven?

This is going to be an interesting year for Graham. He’s losing a ton of defensive stars and he spends the majority of his time on that side of the football. It’s not unreasonable to think the Sun Devils might take a step back defensively in 2014, but if they can come close to matching some of their 2013 defensive production after that kind of a talent drain, we’ll know just how good of a coach Graham really is.


Bryce in San Franciso writes: I'm happy to see Kyle Bonagura getting on board with the lunch link quotes. I don't see an inbox for him, so hoping you can pass this note along.

Kevin Gemmell: I’ll let him know. He started strong with a quote from “The Sandlot.” When it comes to the lunch links quotes, we try to have fun with them … but sometimes they can be a bit obscure. Last year, on the anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, I posted a stanza from “The Mighty K.C.” a one-hit wonder song by For Squirrels from 1995. Didn’t think anyone would get the reference, and they didn’t. On the day Ray Bradbury died, Ted quoted “Fahrenheit 451.” Sometimes, it’s just a movie or song or book that’s stuck in my head. They aren’t always gems, but we try to make it fun.

Season wrap: USC

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
7:00
AM PT
The big news for USC's 2013 campaign wasn't the season itself but the firing of coach Lane Kiffin. That, however, also was the transformative moment of the season, as the Trojans bounced back from a dispiriting 3-2 start to finish 10-4 and rank 19th, rallying under interim coach Ed Orgeron.

The Trojans went 6-2 under Orgeron, but his hopes for earning the full-time job were likely dashed by two losses to Notre Dame and UCLA, USC's two chief rivals.

The second big news for the Trojans was the hiring of Steve Sarkisian away from Washington, which received a mixed reaction. But that points toward the future. Our concern is the 2013 season.

You can read our graded review of USC here.

Offensive MVP: The Trojans' offense struggled much of the season, ranking ninth in the conference with 29.7 points per game, but its most consistent weapon was receiver Nelson Agholor. With Marqise Lee in and out of the lineup with injuries, it was Agholor, a sophomore, who led the Trojans with 918 yards receiving and six touchdowns. His 16.4 yards per reception also was tops among the team's receivers. Further, he led the conference and ranked second in the nation with a 19.1-yard average on punt returns, which included two returns for touchdowns.

Defensive MVP: Defensive end Leonard Williams became one of the nation's best defensive linemen as a true sophomore. He ranked second on the Trojans with 74 tackles, including 13.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks. He also had four quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles and was named a first-team All-American by ESPN.com and third-team by the Associated Press. He is almost certain to be a 2014 preseason All-American.

Best moment: No. 4 Stanford had rallied from a 10-point first-half deficit to tie the score at 17-17, and it had the ball with more than three minutes remaining on its 40-yard line. There was plenty of time to drive for the winning field goal, but Stanford QB Kevin Hogan threw his second fourth-quarter interception to Su'a Cravens at the USC 44. The Trojans then got a 47-yard field goal from Andre Heidari, who had struggled for much of 2013, with just 19 seconds left to notch the upset, and recorded the fourth and best win of what would become a five-game winning streak under Orgeron.

Worst moment: While the 10-7 loss at home to Washington State was horrible -- the Trojans had just 193 total yards -- and was the beginning of the end for Kiffin, the 62-41 loss at Arizona State was the defeat that ended his tenure. Athletic director Pat Haden was so dismayed with the white-flag performance -- the Trojans gave up 612 yards -- that he fired Kiffin at LAX in the early morning hours of the next day. Of course, that low moment seems to spur the season's transformation so some may see Kiffin's firing as a good thing.

Season review: USC

January, 7, 2014
Jan 7
2:30
PM PT
Our season reviews continue in alphabetic order.

Next up is USC.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler, Clay Helton
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesCody Kessler showed improvement with Clay Helton calling the plays.
Offense: When taking stock of the USC offense, you really have to look at it like it was two different seasons: The Lane Kiffin swan song vs. the Ed Orgeron rebirth. The first few games were an extended tryout at the quarterback spot, which was eventually won by Cody Kessler. In the first five games under Kiffin, Kessler completed 63 percent of his throws, averaged 166.4 yards per game and had six touchdowns to four interceptions. His raw QBR was 39.9 and his adjusted QBR was 48.9. Post Kiffin, when Clay Helton stepped in to call the plays, Kessler completed 65 percent of his throws and threw 14 touchdowns to three interceptions. As a team, they averaged 26 points in the first five games and 31.7 over the final nine. We also saw the emergence of Buck Allen at tailback. Once he started getting regular carries, he had four 100-yard rushing games in his final six games and 12 touchdowns over that same span. Often-injured Marqise Lee couldn’t follow up on his 2012 Belitnikoff Award season, but Nelson Agholor came on strong. It will be interesting to see what USC looks like as an uptempo offense with Steve Sarkisian at the helm. Grade: C+

Defense: For all the heat Kiffin took – including one last final burn – he also recognized that the Trojans needed to move to an odd front to keep up with some of the perimeter speed in the league. And he knew he had the horses. Hiring Clancy Pendergast was a wise decision. In one season under Pendergast, the Trojans cut their points allowed by more than a field goal, made huge strides in rush defense (167 yards allowed in 2012 compared to 120.3 in 2013) and were on the plus side of turnover margin at plus-6 after going minus-2 in 2012 and minus-1 in 2011. Four players landed on the first- or second-team all-league squads and Leonard Williams emerged as one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the country. Statistically, the Trojans ranked in the top three or four in the league in most major categories. Yes, there were a couple of bad games. But there was a lot more good than bad as the Trojans allowed fewer than 20 points in nine of 13 games. Grade: A-

Special teams: The Trojans were first in the league in punt returns with three touchdowns (two from Agholor), but last in the league in kick returns. They were second to last in the league in touchbacks, but had one of the stronger kick coverage teams in the league. Andre Heidari was just 15 of 22 on field goals, but he came up clutch in the Stanford game. And they were 2 for 2 on onside kicks. Some units were really good. Some, not so much. Grade: C+

Overall: Few teams in college football history had to endure the kind of internal drama that USC faced this year. And to come out on the other end up – ranked in the Top 25 and winning a bowl game over a ranked team – speaks to the character of the seniors and the job Orgeron did in relief. But it wasn’t all peaches. While the Trojans did score a huge win over Stanford, they still lost to Notre Dame and UCLA – a couple of big no-nos with the fans, die-hard and casual alike. Firing a coach midseason usually means throwing up a white flag. So we certainly give credit where credit is due. The Trojans fought hard. The losses were ugly (see: State, Washington; State, Arizona; and Dame, Notre). The future of the USC program is certainly going to be an interesting one. But when you peel back all of the layers of 2013 and reflect on what USC managed to get done, it’s hard not to respect where they ended up compared to where they could have ended up. Grade: B-

Pendergast's future at USC up in the air

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
3:00
PM PT
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.

Five things: Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl

December, 21, 2013
12/21/13
6:00
AM PT
Here are five things to watch for the USC Trojans (9-4) in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl matchup against Fresno State (11-1) on Saturday (12:30 p.m. PT, ABC):

1. 10 wins: The talking point that USC players and coaches used a lot over the past two weeks was the desire to get to 10 wins for the season. And the more you think about it, with all this team has gone through, it really would be a notable accomplishment. It’s not often a team has three coaches in one season, and the results usually aren’t good. If the Trojans can come away with a victory in this game against a quality opponent in Fresno State, it would be a satisfying way for this group to go out.

2. Stop that Carr: There’s a reason the Bulldogs have won 11 games, and it starts with the passing attack. Fresno State is ranked at the top of the national rankings in passing offense, their quarterback Derek Carr leads the nation in passing yards and touchdowns, and his top receiver Davante Adams tops the rankings in catches and receiving touchdowns. The Trojans – despite early season concerns in the secondary – ended up leading the Pac-12 in passing defense and a big key in this game will be the ability to get pressure up front with Devon Kennard and Leonard Williams.

3. O-line openings: The Trojans will be filling two open spots on the offensive line in this game after Marcus Martin (center) and Aundrey Walker (right guard) went out with injuries against UCLA. Fortunately, the replacements – Abe Markowitz and John Martinez – are experienced veterans, but they will have a strong test with a Fresno State defense that is tied for the national lead in sacks. It will be critical to give Cody Kessler time to throw to Marqise Lee – who is finally healthy – and Nelson Agholor to take advantage of a secondary that is ranked No. 116 in the nation against the pass.

4. You’re not in El Paso anymore: There has been a lot of talk leading into the game about the motivation factor for the Trojans. Last season, the team appeared to be less than enthused about a Sun Bowl appearance, and it showed in the performance. Fresno State is an opponent that is more than capable of beating the Trojans if there is a repeat of El Paso, but USC players and coaches say that there will be no such lack of enthusiasm for this game. In fact, several players cited a desire to play well for departed interim coach Ed Orgeron as a key factor.

5. Sark Watch: New USC coach Steve Sarkisian will be in attendance at the game, though he won’t be coaching. Regardless, it will be the first opportunity for the returning USC players to show well in front of their new coach, and you never know what can happen when a fresh set of eyes is doing the evaluations. Just ask Buck Allen – he was limited to 14 carries in the first five games under Lane Kiffin but played a larger role once Orgeron took over and became the team MVP.

WeAreSC roundtable: Postseason honors

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
8:00
AM PT
The USC football team banquet will be held this week with the annual team awards handed out. The WeAreSC staffers give their picks on some of the top performers of the season.

MVP

Garry Paskwietz: Leonard Williams
Johnny Curren: Leonard Williams
Greg Katz: Leonard Williams

Top offensive player

GP: Javorius "Buck" Allen
JC: Marcus Martin
GK: Cody Kessler

Top defensive player

GP: Devon Kennard
JC: Devon Kennard
GK: Devon Kennard

Most impactful freshman

GP: Su'a Cravens
JC: Su’a Cravens
GK: Su’a Cravens

Surprise performer

GP: Buck Allen
JC: Buck Allen
GK: J.R. Tavai

Tough guy of the year

GP: Dion Bailey
JC: Soma Vainuku
GK: Hayes Pullard

Biggest one-game performance

GP: Hayes Pullard vs Stanford
JC: Soma Vainuku vs Colorado
GK: Buck Allen vs Cal

Future star

GP: Justin Davis
JC: Justin Davis
GK: Darreus Rogers

Five things: UCLA at USC

November, 30, 2013
11/30/13
6:00
AM PT
Five things to watch as No. 22 UCLA (8-3, 5-3 Pac-12) takes on No. 23 USC (9-3, 6-2) on Saturday at the Coliseum (5 p.m. PT, ABC).

Take back the City: This one is for the bragging rights of Los Angeles and, after the UCLA victory in 2012, the Bruins have talked a lot this week about how this game is an opportunity to show that they run the town now. The Trojans, of course, will point to 12 USC victories in the last 14 matchups, and the fact that the Bruins have not won in the Coliseum since 1997. The USC players know that the best way to put a stop to any talk of UCLA momentum is a win Saturday.

Real ball: When UCLA coach Jim Mora talked about facing the USC offense this week, he clearly relished the challenge of going against a “physical, downhill” offense, as opposed to so many of the spread offenses that are prevalent in the conference today. Mora called it “real ball” and he can expect to see plenty of it in this game. The Trojans have been running the ball well lately, with 240 or more rushing yards in three of the past four games. Buck Allen has nine rushing touchdowns in those four games and the USC offensive line has played particularly well.

Contain Hundley: It’s no secret that UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is one of the top dual-threat players in the country. He ranks No. 2 in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency and the ball gets spread around, as 26 Bruins have caught passes this year. But where Hundley can often be most dangerous is when he takes off to run. He has more than 500 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground this year. The biggest issue for UCLA is that their offensive line will start three freshmen who will be attempting to block Leonard Williams, Devon Kennard & Co.

Senior Day: Among the USC seniors who be playing their final game at the Coliseum are a group of eight players who were a part of the final recruiting class of Pete Carroll at USC: De’Von Flournoy, Kevin Graf, Kevin Greene, Torin Harris, Devon Kennard, John Martinez, Marquis Simmons and Simi Vehikite. Those players signed up for what they thought would be a continuation of the Carroll dynasty but they were subjected instead to harsh NCAA penalties for violations that took place long before they arrived. They were also part of a resurgence at end of their final USC season that helped restore a great sense of pride to the program.

Finish the script: The last seven weeks has brought an amazing turnaround and nothing could finish it better than a win over the Bruins in the Coliseum. All the feel-good emotion around the Trojans right now would reach a crescendo if USC can find a way to avenge the loss last season in the Rose Bowl. Of course, a Trojans victory on Saturday would also result in a landslide of public opinion in favor of retaining interim coach Ed Orgeron.

Pac-12 names players of the week

November, 25, 2013
11/25/13
6:00
PM PT
Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey has been named the Pac-12 offensive player of the week, along with Arizona State linebacker Chris Young, who was named defensive player of the week and UCLA returner Ishmael Adams, who was named special teams player of the week.

Here’s some more on the trio per the Pac-12’s release:

Carey, a junior from Tucson, Ariz., racked up 206 yards on a school-record 48 carries to become the Wildcats’ all-time leading rusher with 3,913 career yards as Arizona upset No. 5 Oregon 42-16 on Saturday afternoon in Tucson. His four touchdowns on the day established a new program mark for career touchdowns with 49 while his 45 career rushing touchdowns are also a school record. The 48 carries were the most by an FBS player in a game this season and his string of 14 straight 100-yard rushing games is tied for the longest streak by an FBS player over the past ten seasons. The nation’s second-leading rusher (155.9 ypg) earns the conference offensive player of the week honor for the second time this year.

Young, a senior from Seattle, Wash., led an Arizona State defense that limited a potent UCLA offense and squashed a fourth-quarter comeback bid in a 38-33 win over the Bruins at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night as the Sun Devils clinched the Pac-12 South Division title with the victory. He collected a game-leading 13 tackles, including 12 solo, and three sacks for a loss of 27 yards. His two fourth-quarter sacks and game-ending tackle on the Bruins’ final two drives secured the win for the Sun Devils, who earned a spot in the Pac-12 Football Championship Game on Dec. 7.

Adams, a sophomore from Woodland Hills, Calif., collected 234 return yards in his first game serving as the return man in the Bruins’ 38-33 loss to Arizona State. His efforts in the return game led to three UCLA scores, including a 58-yard return on the Sun Devils’ first kickoff of the game to set up a 42-yard scoring pass on the next play and a 49-yard punt return that set up a 48-yard field goal that put the Bruins ahead late in the first quarter.

Also nominated for offensive player of the week honors were quarterbacks Taylor Kelly of Arizona State and Connor Halliday of Washington State; running backs Javorius Allen of USC and Bishop Sankey of Washington; and wide receivers Ty Montgomery of Stanford and Shaq Evans of UCLA. Also nominated for defensive player of the week honors were linebackers Anthony Barr of UCLA and Justin Sagote of Washington State; cornerbacks Shaquille Richardson of Arizona and Marcus Peters of Washington; and defensive end Leonard Williams of USC and free safety Jered Bell of Colorado. Also nominated for special teams player of the week honors was Washington State kicker Andrew Furney and USC fullback/special teams member Soma Vainuku.

Trojans hitting stride at right time

November, 24, 2013
11/24/13
3:00
PM PT
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.

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