Tomorrow's scrimmage should provide a good basis of evaluation for the offensive players, but it will be difficult to analyze the defense with the numerous injuries on that side of the ball. Defensive players that were hurt before or during spring practices include 6 defensive backs, a linebacker, and a D Lineman. They include but are not limited to: CB Kevin Thomas, CB Terrell Thomas, CB Cary Harris, S Josh Pinkard, S Will Harris, S Kevin Ellison, LB Brian Cushing, DT Chris Barrett, and many others
That's quite a number of injuries, especially in the secondary, so the defense will be shorthanded. The following preview of the defensive units will be what I'm expecting to see in the scrimmage and how the positions project into the start of fall camp.
After a year running a 3-4 defensive front, with Brian Cushing playing the extra linebacker at the "elephant" position, the Trojans are switching back to the more conventional 4-3 front. The lack of a pass rush last year may have been attributed to having Lawrence Jackson as our only pass rush specialist on the field. The sub-par numbers from Jackson didn't mean that he was playing terribly, he had a pretty solid season, but it did influence his decision to come back for his senior season. Junior Kyle Moore is expected to start at end opposite Jackson in the fall, but he needs to show the coaches that he can be a terror in the backfield. Not only does he need to gain confidence and become one of the leaders, he also must get a head start on highly touted fresman Everson Griffen, who will be staking his claim to the starting job in the fall. Junior Gerald Washington, a converted tight end, and senior Alex Morrow will provide depth.
The Trojans are strong at defensive tackle as they welcome back one of the nation's premier players, nose tackle Sedrick Ellis. It's not by mistake that the Trojan defense struggled a bit last year in the few games that Ellis missed due to injury. He will anchor the line along with junior Fili Moala, who should start next to Ellis. Senior Chris Barret, sophomore Alex Parsons, and freshman Derek Simmons will work to back up Fili, while sophomore Averell Spicer and junior Lawrence Miles will spot Ellis at NT. I'm looking for Fili Moala to emerge out of the group as someone who can exploit the constant double teams that Ellis and Jackson will be receiving this season.
The biggest change that was brought by switching back to the 4-3 front will be that of Brian Cushing, as he will now move off the line of scrimmage to the strong side linebacker position (SAM). He will now have more room to roam and make plays instead of battling offensive linemen down in the trenches like he did last season. It will be an adjustment for Cushing, but hasn't been able to practice since injuring his hamstring early in the spring. Senior Keith Rivers enters his 3rd year starting on the weak side, and the hard-hitting junior Rey Maualuga takes over full-time in the middle after sharing time with senior captain Oscar Lua last year. Rey now becomes the unquestioned leader in the defensive huddle, and all players will respect him. Coaches everywhere are aware that they must know where #58 is at all times, including USC LB's Coach Ken Norton, Jr. Senior Thomas Williams, an electrifying hitter, is the top backup. He is smart and versatile, and can play all 3 LB positions equally well. Junior Kaluka Maiava and sophomore Luthur Brown will backup Rivers and Maualuga, respectively. This is one of the deepest and most talented LB corps in the country and should serve as the backbone of this defense. The only question mark will be how quickly Cushing adapts to his new role, because we know Rey and Keith just flat out make plays.
To say that the defensive backs have been banged up this spring would be an understatement. Projected starters at CB Terrell Thomas and Cary Harris, as well as one of their top backups Kevin Thomas have been out. Safeties Kevin Ellison and Josh Pinkard have also missed all of them spring as they rehab and get ready for the upcoming season. The only healthy starter in the secondary this spring has been FS Taylor Mays, who took over for Pinkard last season when he injured his knee in the opener at Arkansas. The one positive thing is that the guys like CB Shareece Wright, who are further down on the depth chart, have gotten quality reps, which has bolstered the overall talent and depth in the secondary. Mozique McCurtis is another tough and savvy player, much like LB Thomas Williams, who is versatile and can play many roles in the secondary. The biggest myth will be the availability of Josh Pinkard. Carroll often referred to him as the best and most valuable player on defense going into last season. Pinkard, who was inserted at CB when the defense was struggling in 2005, and played really well, is probably the smartest and most instinctive player on the team. But with the emergence of Mays at FS, and the improved play at CB, where will he fit in this season. Of course he must first get healthy.
Hope you liked the offensive and defensive preview of Saturday's spring game. I'll provide a complete post game wrap up on Sunday with my thoughts, as well as a few quotes and reactions from players and coaches.