One of the keys to the Syracuse offense is its ability to get rid of the ball quickly in a precision passing attack that relies on three-step drops, solid protection from the O-line and a lot of slant passes. For the Trojans, a good counter to that style of offense is pressure from the defensive line, particularly the defensive ends, who will need to get upfield quickly and get their hands in the air to potentially block the ball at the point of attack.
One of the players defensive line coach Ed Orgeron will rely on for this role is junior Devon Kennard, who has quickly made the transition back to defensive end after spending a year and a half at linebacker. During the offseason, the Trojans coaches made the determination that an increased pass rush would be critical for the 2011 season, so Kennard was moved back to the spot where he was once the No. 1-ranked prospect at that position in the nation as a high school senior.
"Devon is a natural pass rusher," Orgeron said. "He's strong, and he's so smart. Playing linebacker helped him understand formations and stuff."
Added Orgeron with a laugh: "But I think he looks a lot better rushing the passer than dropping back."
Kennard has adjusted quickly in his return to his original position. He is considered a co-starter with incumbent starter Wes Horton, and through two games he already has six tackles and a handful of pressures. What he doesn't have, however, is a sack. That is something he is looking forward to rectifying in this game.
"It feels great to be back at defensive end," Kennard said. "I felt comfortable right away when I moved back. I can't wait to get my first sack though. I got close the last game. There's no better feeling in the world than rushing the passer, and it's what I love to do."
Kennard will be trying to get to Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib, who is completing his passes at a 75-percent clip this season with an impressive six touchdowns to only one interception. Nassib benefits from having a running back in Antwon Bailey who holds the school record for most receptions in a career and a pair of wide receivers who have each shown the ability to make big plays.
"Nassib is a smart quarterback, he really is," Orgeron said. "They use a lot of West Coast passing schemes, and he understands what they're doing. We need to really pay attention to our assignments."
With such an accomplished passer coming to town, one of the biggest points of emphasis in practice this week for head coach Lane Kiffin was the need to see better man to man coverage from the cornerback spot opposite Nickell Robey. So far this season we've seen Tony Burnett and Torin Harris alternate at that position, but redshirt freshman Anthony Brown got an extended look in practices this week, and Kiffin said he will see playing time on Saturday.
"Anthony Brown is physical, a strong tackler and he really wants to be good," Kiffin said. "He will be in the nickel package for sure, and he could be in the corner rotation as well."
Weekly Theme: Players
Kiffin said the theme for USC practice this week was, "It's all about us." The point he was trying to make is that the players don't need to get caught up in being 2-0. They need to worry about fixing the little things that will help them improve and get ready for the remainder of the season. The 2010 Trojans squad opened the season 4-0, then proceeded to go 4-5 over the final nine games, so the players should definitely understand the message Kiffin is trying to send.
Weekly Theme: Coaches
Kiffin said the coaches will be paying a lot of attention in this game to playing more guys than they have in the past two games. In week one against Minnesota, there were 43 USC players who saw action; the number against Utah last week was 47. In addition to Anthony Brown, other players who could see extended action include free safety Drew McAllister, wide receiver Kyle Prater and left guard Marcus Martin.
"Drew is finally healthy, and he's done a good job," Kiffin said. "He's made a lot of plays, and we've told him we're going to get him in there to sub for T.J. (McDonald) in the third or fourth series. Kyle Prater had some injuries that set him back. It hasn't allowed him to get in a groove and get comfortable yet."
With the left guard situation still up in the air, Martin will be the third starter at the spot in three weeks after Jeremy Galten (Minnesota) and Martin Coleman (Utah). Coleman is on the sidelines now with his left shoulder in a sling, so the coaches will turn to the true freshman from Los Angeles Crenshaw HS.
"It would be big for me to start as a freshman," Martin said. "The coaches haven't said anything yet, so I don't know for sure if I will start, but it would be tremendous. Every freshman dreams of this opportunity."
Kiffin said after the Thursday practice that Abe Markowitz, who held down the starting spot for much of fall camp before injuring his foot, is expected to be able to play on Saturday in a limited role.
Armstead Resolution Near?
There is still no confirmed word on the playing status of Armond Armstead, but Kiffin said he anticipates meeting with the Armstead family "before next week." There was a report on Wednesday that Armstead has not been cleared by USC doctors but that other doctors could clear him.
This is an issue that will need to be addressed soon, because the season is well under way, and Armstead naturally wants to play. There was a similar medical situation a few years ago, when linebacker Jarvis Jones suffered a neck injury and was not cleared by USC doctors to play again. Jones requested a transfer and was cleared to play at Georgia, where he is now a redshirt sophomore who is second on the team in tackles as a starting outside linebacker.
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at email@example.com.