During Devon Kennard's initial four years at USC things didn’t exactly go to plan. Arriving as one of the most highly decorated members of the Trojans’ signing class of 2009, the Phoenix (Ariz.) Desert Vista product’s career had been stymied by injuries -- including a torn chest muscle that forced him to miss the entire 2012 campaign -- as well as a constant series of position changes that saw him go from defensive end, to strongside linebacker, to middle linebacker, and back again to defensive end.
But with Clancy Pendergast and his attacking 5-2 defense in place at USC, a now-healthy Kennard is finally living up to expectations after finding a home at SAM linebacker -- a hybrid end/outside linebacker position -- where his skill set has proven to be a perfect fit.
Having amassed nine tackles, two sacks and three pass-breakups through the team’s first two games, the fifth-year senior captain has emerged as a key component in a USC defensive unit that currently ranks No. 1 nationally in sacks (11) and rushing defense (allowing 15 ypg).
“I definitely feel comfortable in this defense,” said Kennard, who has now compiled 144 tackles in his career. “It puts me, as well as all of my teammates in position to make plays, and that’s all you can ask for as a player. We’re working together. The DBs cover well. ... Josh Shaw and Dion Bailey have been making a lot of plays for us, allowing us to get pressure on the quarterback. And we’ve helped them, too.”
Possessing a 6-foot-3 and 255-pound frame to go along with strong pass rushing skills, a nose for the ball and an aggressive brand of play, Kennard is coming off an impressive outing against Washington State in which he recorded five tackles, half a sack and one pass breakup, while also setting up a Cody Kessler touchdown run with a fumble recovery and 14-yard return that he nearly took back for six himself.
“I was hoping to end up in the end zone, but there was a running back in the flat and nobody saw him,” Kennard said. “It’s OK though, we still scored on that drive.”
But that would be the extent of the points put up by the Trojans. So despite a staunch effort by a USC defense that limited the Cougars to just 7 yards on the ground while also forcing a total of three turnovers, they would fall at home in an upset, 10-7. And while it would be easy for him to point to an anemic USC passing attack as the primary cause for the defeat, according to Kennard, there was plenty of blame to go around on both sides of the ball, with the defense playing a part, in particular, with a momentary lapse in production on Washington State’s game-winning field-goal drive.
“You win and lose as a team,” Kennard said. “There’s no finger pointing going on. There are things that we could have done on defense. One thing that sticks out in my head from last week is that 49-yard run (on a pass reception) they had in the fourth quarter. If we could have found a way to stop them, they wouldn’t have been in field goal position.”
Coming off such a disheartening loss, job No. 1 for Kennard and the other veterans has been to make sure that the Trojans get back on track, starting with the approaching matchup with Boston College. And while the rumored players-only meeting that made headlines earlier this week was later revealed to be nothing more than a casual conversation amongst a few teammates during the team’s training table on Sunday, Kennard -- who has taken on more of a vocal role as a leader this season -- did voice his opinion that day to the small group, and he’s encouraged by what he’s seen from the team as a whole.
“When I talked to guys it was just like, ‘We’ve got to have a great week of practice, we can’t let this loss linger on into our Monday and Tuesday practice, and we have to move on. It’s early in the season and we have an opportunity to bounce back,’ " Kennard said. "It starts with practicing hard. You’ve got to come out and have a good day of practice. I’m really proud of my team and everybody involved because we’ve had a great week of practice so far, and we’ve really bounced back from that standpoint.”
But the Trojans will have to prove just how far they’ve come this weekend against a BC squad that has shown vast improvement under first-year head coach Steve Adazzio. Going up against a hard-nosed Eagles offensive attack featuring 227-pound tailback Andre Williams, the USC defense could be in for a real battle. But with their sights zeroed in on the task at hand, and away from last Saturday’s defeat, Kennard and Co. appear ready for whatever might come their way.
“Everybody has moved on,” Kennard said. “I like the mentality of the team coming back from a loss. Everybody came back, and our focus is on beating BC. I’ve watched a lot of film on them and they’re very physical. We know they’re going to come at us, and we’re preparing for it. It’s a great challenge.”