If there was an Achille's heel for the Trojans last season it was against the run. Giving up 155.2 yards per game on the ground, they were chewed up for big yardage. The number is especially high when you factor in that they led the league with 37 sacks last fall. With experience at key positions returning, the unit should do nothing but improve in 2002.
Leading the way is all-everything safety Troy Polamalu, who is a preseason candidate for the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. The 5-10, 215 senior led the Trojans in tackles last fall with 118, including 13 for losses. He also totaled one sack, six pass deflections, three interceptions, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and found time to block three punts on special teams. In short he's the leader of the defensive unit and a player the Auburn coaches are already very familiar with after watching and studying film of Southern California this summer.
"We're going to have to know where he is every play," Auburn offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino says of Polamalu. "He's a very good football player. He's extremely fast. But you just have to take your hat off to him and respect him for how he plays. He plays so hard. He's a guy that plays hard on every down. He's their blitz guy, he's kind of the key to their whole defensive package. We have to recognize where he's at and make sure we get a helmet on him."
Safety Troy Polamalu is the unquestioned leader of a Trojan defense that is looking for bigger and better things in 2002.
Even though Polamalu is back to lead the secondary, The Trojans have several question marks at the other three spots heading into Monday night's game vs. Auburn. After losing three starters to the NFL last fall in safety Antuan Simmons and cornerbacks Kris Richard and Chris Cash, the Trojans were counting on senior Kevin Arbet to take up the slack. However, a preseason injury has sidelined the speedy Arbet for the season and has forced the Trojan coaching staff to look deeper down the depth chart.
One side looks to be solid with six-time starter Darrell Rideaux holding down the fort. At 5-8, 170 he's on the small, but makes up for his lack of size with blazing speed and quickness. A sprinter for the USC track team, he should be able to run with Auburn's receivers, but if things get tight don't be surprised to see the ball thrown up for grabs a time or two in his direction. Last season he had just eight tackles in limited action.
At the other corner freshman Justin Wyatt appears to have held off a challenge from converted wide receiver William Buchanon. Wyatt, a 5-10, 175 true freshman, has been good this fall in camp but will earn his stripes if named the starter for Monday night. Buchanon (6-4, 175) has the size the USC coaches are searching for, but is limited in his experience at the position. Right now, along with junior college transfer Ronald Nunn, he is the top backup for the Trojans. That might not be good news for a team hoping to keep the Auburn passing attack from getting on track in the opener.
At free safety the situation is more stable with Deshaun Hill taking over the spot. A part-time starter in his career, the 5-11, 200 Hill totaled 42 tackles last fall with three starts. A very productive player, Hill's 14 tackles against Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl not only tell you what kind of player he is but also points to the question marks up front for the Trojans heading into 2002.
While there is no question the front seven for the Trojans are athletic and can get to the quarterback, it remains to be seen whether they can put it all together and become an all-around defense. Strong against the pass last season using a variety of blitz schemes to put pressure on the opposing quarterback, they will again use that tactic to try to mask an inexperienced secondary. What that could do is leave the Trojans vulnerable against the run once again unless they get improved play in that area up front.
The Trojans do return two outstanding defensive linemen in tackle Shaun Cody and end Kenechi Udeze. Both freshman All-Americans last fall (Cody a first-teamer and Udeze a second-team selection), the duo hopes to build on that performance this season. At 6-4, 275, Cody is a very active player in the interior. Last season he had 39 tackles with seven for losses while adding five sacks and one fumble recovery. Udeze, at 6-4, 280, is one of the more physically imposing players the Tigers will face this season. With his blend of size and quickness, Udeze had 35 tackles last season with nine for losses. He added four sacks, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery to give the Trojans a big-play threat at defensive end.
What remains to be seen is how USC copes with the losses of starters Lonnie Ford and Ryan Nielson from the 2001 squad. Help is on the way from former starter Bernard Riley (6-3, 320, Sr.), who missed most of the 2001 season with a knee injury. Riley is currently battling Mike Patterson (6-0, 285, So.) for the other tackle spot alongside Cody and should add experienced depth to the position.
At end junior Omar Nazel (6-5, 240) appears to have held off a strong run from junior college transfer Danny Urquhart (6-2, 250) for the final starting spot. Nazel was a backup in 2001 and totaled 15 tackles with three sacks while Urquhart was earning All-American honors at Los Angeles (Calif.) Southwest Junior College.
Senior Mike Pollard returns at middle linebacker to anchor a solid group for the Trojans. In his first year at the position last fall he totaled 81 tackles, including eight for losses. At just 6-0, 225, he's a bit undersized for the position but makes up for it with a tenacious will on the field and good speed. He's flanked by steady sophomore Matt Grootegoed and Washington State transfer Melvin Simmons.
More of a safety playing the position, the 5-10, 205 Grootegoed started seven games last fall and had 32 tackles with eight for losses. His speed on the outside makes him a perfect fit for the USC defensive system that likes to move the linebackers all over the field. Simmons (6-1, 215), a former starter for the Cougars, had 59 tackles two seasons ago and should shore up the linebacker position making it the strength of the unit.
With a style similar to that of Auburn, using a variety of looks and coverages in the secondary, the Trojans should present a serious challenge to a Tiger offense hoping to break out of the blocks in 2002 with a big performance. While they have experience returning at some key spots, a lack of size at linebacker and cornerback may prove to be the downfall of this unit. Expect Auburn to run the ball right at the Trojans and make the undersized Rideaux and Wyatt play Auburn's bigger receivers straight up on the outside. If Auburn's offensive line can give quarterback Daniel Cobb time to throw, this could be the coming out party many are hoping for in 2002 for Auburn's offense.