One of the biggest reasons for optimism with the USC defense in 2013 is the change in scheme with new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. After a disappointing showing in 2012 -- which included allowing USC records 62 points and 730 yards of offense given up to the Oregon Ducks -- the Trojans saw Monte Kiffin move back to the NFL and Pendergast brought in from Cal to install his 5-2 scheme.
Pendergast brings experience and a history of success against Pac-12 offenses, particularly the variations of the spread-option that are so prevalent in the conference today. His defenses are also known to create pressure from multiple angles and USC coach Lane Kiffin referenced the fact that Pendergast was able to achieve quick success -- his first two defenses for the Bears were ranked No. 1 in the conference -- as a key reason why he was hired at USC. The thought being this defense is not far away from being pretty good with the right coordinator and scheme to bring things together.
In the 5-2 scheme, the Trojans consider the line to be made up of five players -- the nose tackle, two defensive ends and two stand-up outside linebackers. The standout player in spring was Leonard Williams at one of the end spots. This is no surprise after he was named Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2012. The future is extremely bright for Williams to potentially become of the best interior linemen in the country. George Uko is the other end for the Trojans, and he isn’t far behind Williams. Uko consistently received praise from Kiffin in spring for his solid performances. Antwaun Woods is at the nose tackle spot, and he offers an athletic wide body who has worked hard this offseason.
On the outside, the Trojans bring a pair of very good pass rushers in Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard. Breslin led the team in sacks last year and had 3.5 sacks in the spring game from his new spot. Kennard returns from sitting out the 2012 season with injury and his skill set seems to fit the position.
There is also the potential for good depth along the line, something that is key for Ed Orgeron to rotate lines throughout the game. J.R. Tavai is the most experienced interior reserve but other options this year could include Cody Temple, Kenny Bigelow and Greg Townsend. That’s not a bad set of backups. On the outside, Jabari Ruffin and Kevin Greene saw action in spring while Scott Starr was originally slated to play middle linebacker but he saw time at outside linebacker in summer workouts. True freshman Quinton Powell is also in the mix, as is key special teams performer Marquis Simmons.
This position group is a strength for the Trojans. The leader is Hayes Pullard at one inside linebacker spot. Pullard has been productive for the past two years on the outside and seems to be a more natural fit in the middle. Hayes has also become one of the real leaders of the team coming into the year. His backup will be true freshman Michael Hutchings, who is coming off of three straight state title teams in high school -- he knows how to win. At the other spot, there is a terrific competition between Anthony Sarao and Lamar Dawson. Dawson had been a starter with the previous defense but so far Sarao has held him off through spring and summer workouts.
Here is where things get interesting. One of the hallmarks of the 5-2 scheme is corners playing man-to-man defense, often on an island. During spring drills, this was an issue, as the USC receivers had a lot of success against a corner group that is looking to fill both spots. Granted, it is a new defense to learn and the corners were going up against guys like Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor -- most corners will struggle against them. Regardless, it’s clear there needs to be improvement there once the season starts, and it stands to reason that it will happen as the players become more comfortable in the system.
Kevon Seymour appears to be a strong favorite for one starting corner spot, and he is a very good man-cover corner. The other spot had Anthony Brown as the starter in spring and summer, but there are other options to look at with Torin Harris, Ryan Henderson, Chris Hawkins and Devian Shelton.
Things are more settled at safety. Josh Shaw is at strong safety, which is somewhat of a surprise considering Kiffin had discussed moving him to corner at the end of spring, a position he played in 2012. Shaw looks good at safety, which could be part of the reason he is staying there. He will be joined by Dion Bailey, the former linebacker who will now be at free safety, his original position in high school. If both players can transition well to safety, it could be a very good duo. There is also good depth with Demetrius Wright, Gerald Bowman and a pair of talented true freshman in Su’a Cravens and Leon McQuay III. Cravens in particular showed a lot of promise in spring drills before getting hurt.
Andre Heidari returns for his third year as the placekicker. He was an all-conference selection as a freshman but was slowed by injuries last year. Right now he is healthy and looked good in the limited opportunities he got to kick in live situations during spring. Kris Albarado takes over for Kyle Negrete at punter while Peter McBride returns at long snapper.