Uko proving his worth on Trojans' D

LOS ANGELES – USC Trojans defensive end George Uko might not be the flashiest member of the Trojans’ defensive unit, but it’s safe to say that he’s established himself as one of its most valuable, particularly over the course of the last two-and-a-half weeks.

“Right now, I’m just in camp, in the factory… just working every day,” Uko said after Sunday’s practice.

And it’s that blue-collar work ethic that has the redshirt junior with 15 career starts and 49 tackles to his credit taking his game to another level this August.

Drawing praise from USC head coach Lane Kiffin on more than one occasion for his play, Uko appears to be miles ahead of where he was in the spring when he and the rest of the team were still growing accustomed to Clancy Pendergast’s new 5-2 defense.

“Playing free comes with knowing what you’re doing, in any scheme,” Uko said.

“I’m able to play free and I’m able to play faster than I was in the spring because I’m understanding the scheme, what Coach Pendergast wants done, what the responsibilities of my position are and what I can do within the scheme.”

But there’s more to it than that. Uko has also transformed himself physically. Currently standing 6-foot-3 and 285 pounds, he’s bigger, more chiseled and more explosive than he’s ever been before, thanks to some hard work that he put in following the end of last season.

“I put a big emphasis on weight-gain this offseason,” Uko said. “I gained around 15 pounds in the spring and summer. I did a lot of weight room work, I got my footwork going and I got my hands right. I think I made some really big strides this past summer.”

Having lined up at defensive end, tackle and noseguard in his time at USC, Uko is arguably the most versatile member of the entire USC defensive line corps, a fact made obvious this past Sunday morning when -- with Antwaun Woods briefly sidelined -- Uko slid over to the nose spot for the first time in the new defensive alignment and looked completely at home.

Not surprisingly Uko has also developed into a leader of the defensive line -- a role he was first thrust into last season.

“That was something that I started to embrace last year when Wes Horton got hurt,” Uko said. “I wound up being the guy on the line with the most experience, and I hadn’t even had a full starting season yet. I just took it upon myself because a lot of the younger guys were looking up to me, so I just came out here, competed every day and just worked. That’s what I’m always trying to be known for – being a hard worker.”

With Uko and redshirt senior outside linebacker Devon Kennard filling that leadership responsibility, the USC defensive line appears to be in good hands for the upcoming season. A group that also includes key starters from last year’s standout unit in Morgan Breslin and Leonard Williams, as well as Woods and key reserves like J.R. Tavai, Greg Townsend Jr., Jabari Ruffin and Marquis Simmons, there’s reason to believe that they’re poised for an even bigger 2013 campaign as a vital piece of the puzzle in Pendergast’s new attacking defensive scheme.

“We’re more aggressive, we’re closer as a D-line and we have a year of experience under our belts playing together,” Uko said. “We’ll keep coming for you, and keep coming for you.”

That’s a scary thought for opposing offenses on the Trojans’ schedule this season – starting with Hawaii on Aug. 29. But for Uko, who is determined to maintain focus on what has been a stellar fall camp so far, there is still more work to put in on the practice field first.

“I’m just taking it one day at a time,” Uko said. “I’m just out here working for my team, trying to give it my all, and just trying to get better each and every day.”