Defense the story as USC preps for Utah

Finally healthy, Lamar Dawson is wreaking havor for the Trojans from his linebacker position. Cal Sport Media via AP Images

LOS ANGELES -- It was shorts and shoulder pads for the Trojans on Monday morning for what USC coach Lane Kiffin referred to as a Thursday practice in terms of its look and what was covered. Just three days remain before the Utah game, and a refreshed USC squad is anticipating a spirited crowd at sold-out Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“I think the players are anxious to play again after having some time off,” said Kiffin following practice. “And we’re excited for it. I think it will be a very entertaining game in a place that I think will be rocking when we go in there. It’ll be a good test for us.”

Storyline of the day: Cornerbacks

The cornerbacks were the topic of the day on Monday, with Kiffin noting the stellar play of Nickell Robey at the outset of his post-practice media session. You don’t hear the 5-foot-8 standout’s name called very often, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly by no fault of his own.

“I think he’s played great, they just don’t throw at him,” said Kiffin. “You’re seeing of him a little bit like Robert [Woods]. If they take something away, or don’t give you the opportunity, it’s hard to get numbers. “

The best way to get Robey more opportunities, Kiffin said, would be to get improved play out of the opposite cornerback position, something that the Trojans have struggled with in 2012.

“We need to play better at the other spot, and force them to throw the ball to [Robey],” he said. “We need to cover better, we need to tackle better and we need to make the play when the play is there. It’s no secret we haven’t played well there. We haven’t played well there all year, and it’s unfortunate for Nickell because, I mean, we’ve watched the film, the ball goes the other way all the time.”

Time for Harris to settle in

The quick fix for the Trojans opposite Robey since the Syracuse game has been Torin Harris, but with Harris having missed extensive time at the start of the season due to injury, Kiffin admitted that maybe they rushed him. The good news is that, with some extra time to get in shape this week, there’s hope Harris will begin to resemble the standout cover corner that the staff fell in love with at the beginning of the 2011 season.

“Torin has missed a lot of time,” Kiffin said. “We probably played Torin too much right away. As you go back to that Syracuse game, he played 70 snaps or something. We can’t do that because he’d been out for so long. So I think this bye has been good for him. He’s got some extra conditioning in, and I think he’ll continue to improve.”

Awesome Dawson

Lamar Dawson has been one of the stars of the defense since returning from injury before the Syracuse game, racking up 19 tackles in the past two contests alone. And this might just be the tip of the iceberg for the 6-foot-2, 235-pound middle linebacker.

“I think we played our best game on defense last week -- it had a lot to do with him,” said Kiffin. “He’s played physical, and he’s finally getting comfortable. He’s only in his second year, and he’s been hurt in both seasons and missed time. So it’s almost like he kind of now has one full season of games. So we’re really excited about his development and the way that he’s played the last two weeks.”

Mr. Versatility

It’s not as if T.J. McDonald had a whole lot more to prove heading into this season in terms of his individual play, but now you can add versatility to his long list of talents. The Trojans have been bringing the 2011 All-American safety up on certain plays into a kind of hybrid defensive end position, freeing him up to cause havoc at the line of scrimmage. It’s safe to say that the move has been a success so far, further emphasizing his unique abilities.

“We did some similar things with Eric Berry a few years ago in our one year with him, and it really kind of came from watching T.J. blocking kicks -- how well he rushed,” explained Kiffin. “And when it came up, our defensive ends had been beat up like they still are, so it allows us to get some reps there with some speed. And obviously he can drop too, and do all of the things in coverage as well.”

Hays a backup no more

Utah’s offense was dealt a crushing blow in the second game of the season when fourth-year starting quarterback Jordan Wynn went down with a career-ending shoulder injury. Six-foot senior Jon Hays has taken over, and the transition has certainly come with its struggles -- the Utah offense currently ranks dead-last in the Pac-12 in passing offense (190.8 yards per game). Hays has shown promise, and with 11 starts under his belt, he doesn’t lack experience.

“I thought he’s thrown the ball well,” Kiffin said. “I thought there were a couple times where they could have helped him out by making some plays outside. From a competitive standpoint, you like when you see a backup that you’re getting ready to play, but when you watch him, he’s not really a backup. And he played a lot last year.”