USC defense shifting scheme, mentality

LOS ANGELES -- Devon Kennard didn't have to play through the prodigious frustration that was 2012 USC football. But he had to watch it -- and wonder what his impact might have been had it not been for a torn pectoral muscle that kept him out for the year.

The time to wonder is over. Kennard is back -- and healthy as ever -- as the Trojans transition to an odd-front defense under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast.

"I wasn't out there, but I know what it felt like," Kennard said. “It makes me appreciate what I can do for this team even more now. You have to let what happened last year go. But you still want to keep part of it in the back of your mind. You always want to play with a chip on your shoulder.”

Continuing a league-wide trend, the Trojans are ditching the four-man front that was 69th in the nation (eighth in the league) last year against the run -- yielding 167 yards per game -- and going with an odd-front attack. Depending who you ask, it’s a 52 or 34 base; probably a bit of both depending on the opponent, scenario and offensive formation.

Regardless of who head coach Lane Kiffin hired to replace his father, Monte, as defensive coordinator, he knew he wanted to move away from the 4-3.

“It was probably the direction we were going to go regardless of who it was because of the conference,” Kiffin said. “College football has changed. Our conference has changed and it's dynamic, and it changes from week to week. There is so much perimeter running that goes on, whether it's quarterback, whether it's fly sweeps, whether it's backs, the ball is on the edge a lot -- a lot more than it's ever been. The 3-4 helps you with that because your guys are standing up on the edge and you're keeping the ball on the inside and limiting the perimeter plays.”

In the new scheme, Kennard and second-team all-league defensive lineman Morgan Breslin will become hybrid outside linebackers. Expect both to spend most snaps in a 2-point stance with the opportunity to rush, set an edge or drop back into coverage. It’s not totally foreign to Kennard since he would sometimes drop into coverage in the old scheme’s zone-blitz package.

“They could both rush, they could both drop back, one of them could do the other. It’s a very versatile defense,” said Pendergast, formerly of Cal. “This defense is really going to showcase their talents.”

The new scheme also means a position switch for linebacker Dion Bailey. Despite being a very thick 210 pounds, he’s better suited roaming the secondary. Last year he was more of a hybrid nickel/linebacker and tallied 80 tackles, including eight for a loss.

“We’ll be able to disguise what we’re doing a lot more pre-snap,” Bailey said. “We can move more people around and do a lot more with the personnel that we have. I think it’s a much better fit.

“For me, personally, I think it’s more of a natural position for me. I can better utilize my abilities, and it puts me in space where I can make plays. I really like it.”

Despite their struggles against the run, the Trojans ranked fourth in the nation last season in sacks per game, which is impressive. But they were still third in the league behind Stanford and Arizona State -- two other teams that have had great success with odd fronts. The hope is that with Kennard’s return, and putting Breslin in position to improve on his 13 sacks last season, the Trojans can wreak havoc at the point of attack -- not just the backfield.

The scheme is set. The coaches and players are in place. All that’s needed is the mentality to run it with brutal efficiency. In three of USC’s losses last season, they never led (Oregon, UCLA, Notre Dame). But the defense surrendered second-half leads against Stanford and Arizona, and they were tied at the half against Georgia Tech.

“We got out-willed in the fourth quarter too many times last year,” Bailey said. "That’s something we need to take in and learn from. It's not how you start, it's how you finish … we almost need to get back to how we were playing when we were on sanctions. Not playing for anybody else -- just playing for each other.”