The redshirt freshman from Chino (Calif.) Don Lugo wasn't exactly thrilled with his performance in fall camp, citing a drop in play over the final few weeks because of fatigue.
"I got a little tired, got a little sluggish here and there," Uko said. "I felt like I was still playing, but I just wasn't as strong as the other days. I gave 100 percent everyday, but your 100 percent is not always going to be the same at each level."
USC defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron disagreed, citing Uko's improved conditioning as one of the main reasons.
"He has changed his whole body," Orgeron said. "At times during fall camp he was my best inside guy."
Who's right? Maybe both, maybe neither, but the 6-foot-3, 295-pounder is set to play a significant role for the defense. The Trojans must replace Jurrell Casey, who left school early and was drafted in the third round by the Tennessee Titans, and generally improve a front four that didn't generate nearly enough pressure on the quarterback (19 sacks by defensive linemen last season) and allowed far too many rushing yards (140.5 per game).
A three-man rotation of Uko and redshirt seniors Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris could alleviate those issues, especially given how worn down the defensive line was late in games a year ago.
"I feel like I'm a very, very, very important role because it's them two and then it's me. I have to play up with them. If I'm not playing up to my standards, it's just them two going the whole game," Uko said.
"Your third man is going to be a real key to how good your defensive line is going to be."
Orgeron expects Uko to play 25 to 30 snaps in Saturday's season opener against Minnesota and could develop into a starter by the campaign's end.
With senior Armond Armstead (medical) still not cleared, the Trojans' fourth tackle would likely be freshman Christian Heyward or Antwaun Woods. Orgeron ideally would like to rely on just the three tackles against the Golden Gophers and still have the chance to redshirt one or both.
Uko was able to take advantage of his redshirt year, learning to become a more consistent "hustle player," Orgeron said.
His temperament and demeanor reminds Orgeron of All-American defensive end Kenechi Udeze, who had 16.5 sacks for the Trojans in 2003.
"Kenichi came in a little bit overweight, kept quiet and redshirted and just started catching on like that," said Orgeron, snapping his fingers. "I see George taking the same path."
That road would see Uko become a first-round draft pick.
"I'm hoping so," he said. I'm not going to say I'm up to that level like I'm a first round draft pick right now; I'm nowhere near that. But I feel like if I work hard and listen to Coach O and understand the tape and work on my craft, I'll be pretty good."
Special teams coordinator John Baxter directed an incredible turnaround for the Trojans last season and nowhere was that more evident than on punt returns. Wide receiver Ronald Johnson averaged 14.2 yards per punt return, second-best in the Pac-10, and scored on an 89-yard punt return in the season opener at Hawaii.
With Johnson now playing for the San Francisco 49ers, sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey is the leading contender to handle punt returns. The other candidate is sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods, who will again handle kick returns after averaging 25.6 yards per return last season.
Don't think, however, that Woods' track record, including a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that sparked the 32-21 win at Minnesota, carries any weight.
Asked what he wants in a punt returner, Baxter said he is "looking for a guy that can run a 4.5 40 in a phone booth.
"Kickoff return, I'm looking for a guy to run a 4.5 40 period. A punt returner has to have change of direction skills. Kick returner, you don't want him to change direction at all," he said.
-Freshman running back Javorious "Buck" Allen has been cleared by the NCAA and can now join the team, Kiffin said. Allen, who rushed more than 1,500 yards as a high school senior at Tallahassee (Fla.) Lincoln, will arrive on campus Thursday and begin classes Friday.
Junior college transfer Jeremy Galten again saw the majority of reps at left guard in place of Markowitz.
-Minnesota has five players from California, including sophomore cornerback Brock Vereen from Valencia. Vereen, whose older brother is former California running back Shane Vereen, made his first-career start last season against USC.
The Trojans do not have any players from Minnesota.