Spring Review: Linebackers

With two projected starters out for spring, the development of Hayes Pullard and Will Andrew should give USC some much-needed linebacker depth.

Post-Spring Depth Chart
Strongside Linebacker
1. Marquis Simmons OR Dion Bailey
2. Ross Cumming

Middle Linebacker
1. Devon Kennard
2. Will Andrew OR Dallas Kelley

Weakside Linebacker
1. Chris Galippo
2. Hayes Pullard OR Shane Horton

Projected Post-Fall Camp Depth Chart
Strongside Linebacker
1. Hayes Pullard
2. Dion Bailey
3. Marquis Simmons

Middle Linebacker
1. Devon Kennard
2. Will Andrew
3. Lamar Dawson

Weakside Linebacker
1. Chris Galippo
2. Shane Horton

Three Questions Answered in the Spring
1. They have to be better. Right?
No single unit better exemplified the ineptitude of last season's USC defense than the linebackers.

It was downright shocking to watch them play so poorly. The program that churned out wave after wave of NFL stars and collegiate All-America honorees just in the last decade, let alone across the whole of its storied history, had a group that was often invisible.

When they played well (most notably against Cal, UCLA and Arizona), the Trojans were hard to beat. But there were too many games where nothing happened, as evidenced by the miniscule number of takeaways the core group of Malcolm Smith, Michael Morgan, Devon Kennard and Chris Galippo accounted for.

The coaches seem to understand the difference, tweaking the defense in the spring to let the linebackers play aggressive and fast. And it showed as relative unknowns like Hayes Pullard and Will Andrew made plenty of big plays.

Pullard has a good chance to start, but barring injury, the likes of Andrew won't see significant playing time ahead of Kennard and Galippo. It's on those two, neither of whom played in the spring because of injury, to take the Trojans from horrendous to even mediocre, which would have resulted in an 11-win campaign last year.

And if they get back to greatness, if Galippo and Kennard can harness their inner Tatupu or Grootegoed or Matthews, USC will be among the best teams in the nation, not just the Pac-12. But that's a major gamble given their injury history and previous track record.

That might not be necessary. Remember, USC went 8-5 with a historically inept defense. A slight improvement could be enough to get back to levels Trojan fans are used to.

2. For good or bad, the Devon Kennard experiment continues.
Instincts or athleticism? Ideally you would want a defender with both, but Lane and Monte Kiffin chose physical skills when they moved Kennard to middle linebacker last year.

Even with his brief experiment playing outside as a freshman, the move requires Kennard to unlearn all the tendencies he developed as a highly regarded high school defensive end. It was attack, attack, attack with the simple goal of either bringing down the running back or sacking the quarterback.

Now Kennard has to read the play or drop back into coverage. How often are defensive ends asked to run down the middle of the field 40 yards with a wide receiver? That's what happened in the season opener at Hawaii, Kennard's first game at MIKE.

He certainly struggled with the dramatic change, eventually losing his job to Galippo for the final five games.

Maybe Kennard will fare better with a year under his belt and a spring to digest the finer points of the position, but outside of perhaps quarterback Matt Barkley no player will have a bigger impact on USC's final record.

3. There appears to be real depth at linebacker for the first time since 2008.
Not since that remarkable defense has USC had such a reservoir of depth to call upon, not that anyone will confuse this group with the likes of Matthews or Brian Cushing yet. Still, the injuries to Kennard, Galippo and Shane Horton allowed a collection of youngsters and walk-ons to develop, and the results were quite promising.

Pullard was one of the stars of spring, showing speed coaches didn't think he had. Andrew will give the Trojans everything he has, be it on special teams or at linebacker.

Dion Bailey will be a specialty weapon, his coverage skills useful against spread offenses.

And there's Horton, who should be the recipient of the Rodney Dangerfield scholarship considering how he gets no respect. The UNLV transfer has performed well when given the opportunity.

Remember how he ran down Jahvid Best in a key short yardage stop two years ago at Memorial Stadium?

Kiffin talks about Horton like one of the walk-ons pulled from science class the coach loved to joke about. The redshirt senior should be a reliable stopgap, or perhaps starter, if given the chance.

At worst, all these new options will lighten the load, especially for Galippo, a core member on all special teams last season.

Factor in the new freshmen and there will be available bodies to make a change if needed, something not possible last season.

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