Peter Sirmon probably keeps his bags packed. The first year USC linebackers coach has been a part of five different coaching staffs in the last six years. To say the least, it’s been a period of transition for the former NFL linebacker. Now, Sirmon finds himself at USC coaching a group of players at the linebacker position filled with young, developing talent, a converted safety and a couple of veteran leaders.
“I think we’re still progressing,” Sirmon said. “Anthony (Sarao) is starting to play more physical and that’s been a point of emphasis with getting us playing some of the inside runs, you know, trying to play a little bit bigger at that position. Hayes (Pullard) has been steady. Su’a (Cravens) is continuing to develop at that outside, that down position. The young guys haven’t had a lot of opportunities yet, but Uchenna (Nwosu) is doing a nice job on some special teams situations and Quinton (Powell) is doing a nice job on teams so we’re just developing. It’s always a work in progress.”
Unlike the defensive line, a group that uses almost hockey-like substitutions, the same four to five linebackers have been steadfast on the field for Sirmon. Sarao and Pullard line up as the inside linebackers while Cravens and a rotation of Scott Felix and J.R. Tavai line up as the outside linebackers. Sirmon says they simply are putting the players out there who give them the best chance to win the game. One player who has been on the field for an enormous amount of snaps this season is Anthony Sarao, and there’s some concern about this in Sirmon’s mind.
“Yeah, there is,” Sirmon said. “He’s taken a lot of reps this year. He’s got great stamina and he hasn’t shown the effects of that. The play hasn’t diminished late in the games. He’s still tackled well. He hasn’t had mental mistakes late in the game that I could attribute to being tired. But yeah, it’s an issue. I hear at practice and around in our program, there’s several guys that are carrying a heavy load of volume.”
Playing physical is a big part of being successful at the linebacker position. Senior leader Hayes Pullard embodies this style, but won’t be around when the Trojans take the field next year. The leading candidate to replace him is Michael Hutchings and the sophomore linebacker has seen time on the field spelling Pullard this year.
“Hutch is doing better every week,” Sirmon said. “I think he’s had a good week. He’s played physical this week in practice, which is what we’re continuing to preach everyday, not just for Michael, but for everyone at the linebacker position. We got to play more physical. We’re playing a lot of 3-4 defense and inside linebackers got to take on blocks and be good knock back tacklers. Hutch has been good, he’s been steady. We’re still expecting big things from him."
One of the most skilled played on the USC defense has been Su’a Cravens. He made a big impact last year at the safety position and has transitioned to the SAM linebacker position this year. Sirmon has been impressed with Cravens’ play, but says there is one challenge the sophomore faces.
“Yeah, Su’a has had some flash,” Sirmon said. “Su’a’s challenge is to play consistently. I’m challenging him for consistent greatness, play after play, over and over again. He’s still maturing as a player and he’s got a great future ahead of him. We just got to keep getting him to do it right every time.”
The loss early in the season to Boston College seems like an odd one now. Not because it was a loss to a lower ranked team, but because the Trojans got gashed by the Eagles’ running game, something that hasn’t happened in any other of USC’s contests. Ever since the loss, the Trojans have done an exceptional job of stopping the run, so was there something that changed after the loss?
“No, we’re always emphasizing the run game,” Sirmon said. “Boston College, a few runs got off the table on us. We didn’t fit them quite right, which I don’t think we’ve had those same issues in the last four weeks. And the guys have played their ass off. You can put the film on and it’s a whooping-ass mentality. They’ve been really good taking on blocks, defeating blocks and tackling. We’re continuing to get out of the one-for-one mentality and it’s not okay getting blocked.”
Utah poses yet another threat on the ground this weekend as running back Davontae Booker has been one of the top rushers in the Pac-12 this year. Sirmon says Booker presents some unique challenges.
“He runs angry,” Sirmon said. “He runs like he’s mad at you. In my opinion, Ka’Deem Carey last year at Arizona, he kind of ran with that same physicality, looking for contact and breaks a lot of tackles. Again, he’s another guy that he gets stronger as the game goes. He can kind of maintain, where you see some of the teams kind of wear out on defense late in the game, but he continues to stay strong. He plays one-hundred miles an hour, man. It’s greta challenge. We got to do a good job of knocking him back and not letting him break tackles, spin out of tackles, and fall forward to make a good play end up being a second-and-five. We can’t have those yards where they fall forward for two or three and change the next play on the third-and-short or the second-and-medium.”
Marshall Cherrington will be attending USC and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism beginning in January of 2015. You can follow him on Twitter @MWCherrington.