LOS ANGELES -- With fall camp fast approaching, there has been a noticeable change in the atmosphere of the Trojans’ volunteer passing sessions of late. The light-heartedness and laid-back feel that was evident at times back in early June has been replaced with a general mood of urgency and marked enthusiasm, with just about everyone raising their level of play as a result.
Reflecting that aura of focus and anticipation better than anyone is the veteran performer leading the defensive line through their drills each day, outside linebacker Devon Kennard. A fifth-year senior with 18 starts and 135 tackles to his credit, his time in a USC uniform has been filled with its peaks, but perhaps more noticeably, its valleys as well -- stunting a career that has always appeared to be on the cusp of taking off.
It was almost a year ago exactly, in fact, when Kennard was dealt his biggest setback, a torn pectoral muscle suffered during a weightlifting workout that would require him to go under the knife for the third time in his career and force him to miss the Trojans’ entire 2012 campaign.
And while it was a low point to be sure, the Phoenix (Ariz.) Desert Vista product worked his way back into action in time to establish himself as one of the team’s star performers of this past spring. And now, with the chance to finally hit the field in a game for the first time since his junior season, USC’s Aug. 29 opener at Hawaii simply can’t come soon enough.
“I’m definitely excited to get the season started,” Kennard said after a workout on Cromwell Field late last week. “Everyone else is excited to play too, and they played this last season -- they practiced and were able to play in games. I haven’t played since the 2011 season, so I would like to think that I’m twice as excited as anyone else. I think I showed that in the spring, just with how excited I was to be in pads and to be able to finally hit someone, and I’ll have that same energy once fall camp opens up, and I just can’t wait for that first game.”
And Kennard’s enthusiasm has to do with more than just coming back from injury, but also with the fact that he appears to have finally found his niche on defense. After starting his career at USC as a defensive end, he was eventually moved over to strongside linebacker as a freshman, then to middle linebacker as a sophomore, and then back to defensive end as a junior.
With so much jumping around, Kennard never seemed to have time to develop and find a level of comfort at any one position -- that is until defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast arrived this past offseason with his new 5-2 defensive scheme. Now lining up as the starting SAM linebacker -- a hybrid linebacker/defensive end position -- he seems to have finally found a spot that fits his talents to near perfection.
“This is the best fit for me overall, I think,” Kennard said. “Just with my size, stature and physical abilities, I feel like it allows me to do everything that I can do, and it challenges me athletically. And that’s what you want as a player, to find a position where you fit kind of like a puzzle piece, and that’s what I feel like with this defense.”
But Kennard isn’t the only one who appears to be primed for a big season. Part of a defensive line corps that also includes standouts like Morgan Breslin at Predator linebacker, defensive ends Leonard Williams and George Uko, as well as nose tackle Antwaun Woods, the entire group shined throughout the spring, and they’ve continued to look sharp this summer. But with much still to prove, Kennard remains cautiously optimistic when it comes to the unit’s prospects for 2013.
“Between the three interior guys, and me and Morgan at the outside linebacker spots, we have the potential to be a really good defensive front,” Kennard said. “And we understand that, but we don’t want to get complacent, automatically thinking that we’re going to be great. We have to come out and bring it and show it every day.”
It’s that ability to keep things in perspective -- combined with a model work ethic -- that has aided in Kennard’s emergence as a team-leader this offseason, and it’s a role that he’s more than comfortable with.
“I’ve definitely embraced being a leader,” Kennard said. “I feel like I came into USC with the mindset of wanting to earn my teammates’ respect with the way that I work, and that’s the exact same mindset that I took into the spring. I hadn’t played in a year, and some guys hadn’t seen me play at all, and some guys hadn’t seen me play in a long time, and I wanted to show them what I could do on the field first, with the way that I work and with my workouts. I think that I’ve been able to do that, and that I’ve earned the respect of my teammates and coaches, and I just want to continue to do that.”
Bringing so much to the table on so many levels, it’s plain to see that Kennard’s return to action could wind up paying big dividends for USC this fall. And having gone through the myriad of ups and downs that he’s experienced, it’s safe to say that no one is more thankful for that fact than he is.
“I think that everything happens for a reason, and I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of this team going into the 2013 season, especially with the defense that we’re playing and the team that we’re putting together,” Kennard said. “I’m just grateful for this chance.”