Defense looks to send message from the start

After disastrous 2010 campaign, USC defenders and coaches expect major turnaround, starting with season opener Saturday.

For all the unknowns USC has entering the 2011 season, there is one given: the Trojans will be better on defense.

They certainly can't be worse.

By any measure or metric, year one under famed NFL defensive guru Monte Kiffin was a disaster. USC allowed late game-winning drives to Washington, Stanford and Notre Dame and barely avoided another when Arizona State kicker Thomas Weber hooked a 42-yard field goal in the final moments.

They only accounted for 26 takeaways, whiffed on tackles, struggled to generate a consistent pass rush and were erratic against the run.

They allowed new records for total yardage and points surrendered.

But the biggest breakdowns came in the passing game, allowing 259.5 yards per game and 30 touchdowns, 10 that covered 30 yards or longer.

A lack of talent wasn't to blame. Cornerback Shareece Wright was drafted in the third round, safety T.J. McDonald was named second-team All-Pac-10, while freshman corner Nickell Robey made honorable mention.

No, it was a lack of communication, a lack of familiarity, a lack of trust for a young team with a new scheme.

According to players, those myriad issues have been resolved, some simply because of experience.

"We have another year in the system," strong safety Jawanza Starling said. "We know our keys better. We know our roles and each and everybody's position. Everybody is playing faster. It's up to everybody, not just myself."

There are other reasons. Coaches simplified the defense in some areas and have a better understanding of their personnel.

There is more available depth, including an influx of true and redshirt freshmen ready to contribute. Consider that Oregon rotated some 25 players on defense last season en route to its second consecutive conference championship. The Trojans should play no fewer than 17 players this weekend and that number is likely to grow.

Devon Kennard was moved from middle linebacker to defensive end and was a terror throughout camp, while former safety Dion Bailey is now a linebacker capable of playing in space.

Add it all up and the difference is "night and day," as linebacker Chris Galippo said.

"And right now, we're just so on it," he said. "Guys are so into the schemes. When you got guys coordinated and you got great athletes … We got guys who can cover. We got true freshmen contributing. I think it'll be pretty scary."

USC head coach Lane Kiffin is a bit more skeptical.

"I feel like these guys are ready to play," he said. "There are so many unknowns in this because there are so many players that have never played before in so many significant spots. In one sense, it's going to be exciting to see how they perform in the environment of the Coliseum versus a tough opponent."

Much of his doubt comes from the proliferation of spread offenses. The Trojans' pro-style approach doesn't prepare the team for wide-open attacks to come. At least seven opponents this season will run some form of the spread, be it option, air raid or pistol.

In that regard, there couldn't be a better test Saturday in the Coliseum than Minnesota (12:30 p.m., ABC).

Under new head coach Jerry Kill, the Golden Gophers have adopted a run-heavy version of the spread and will have a physical marvel directing it in quarterback MarQueis Gray.

Gray is 6-foot-4, 240 pounds; a former wide receiver that caught four passes for 98 yards and a touchdown against USC last season. Kiffin even went as far as comparing him to Texas quarterback Vince Young.

The challenge, McDonald says, is to do what the Trojans couldn't do to Young in the epic 2005 Rose Bowl, punish Gray whenever he runs and get him to stop.

"You got to hit him," McDonald said. "You got to punish him. You can't give him any second chances to get to the open field. No quarterback wants to get hit. If we hit him enough, we'll be all right."

Players and coaches are confident they will succeed, against Gray, against the Gophers and against every other team on the schedule.

"I'm not sitting here making a bunch of bold predictions, but we have to play better," linebackers coach Joe Barry said.

"Bottom line. The name of defense, the definition of defense is to make plays and whatever 11 guys we have out there, our job is to make plays. We didn't do enough of that last year. Heck yeah, we got to do that." Top Stories