- Erik McKinney, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- When the potential of the 2012 USC Trojans is discussed, it almost always begins with the number of returning starters. On defense, the fact that the Trojans return eight starters comes with a big asterisk. Along the defensive line, arguably the most important position in establishing a dominant defense, only defensive end Wes Horton returns with significant starting assignments, and the interior -- after losing seniors Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris -- is wide open.
"I feel like this is one of my toughest jobs since I've been at USC," defensive line coach Ed Orgeron said. "Because we have so much inexperience inside, where it all starts."
USC's national championship-caliber defenses of the recent past were led by strong interior play from players such as Mike Patterson, Shaun Cody and Sedrick Ellis. As it stands now, redshirt sophomore George Uko is the only non-first- or second-year player along the interior of the line. Sophomore nose tackle J.R. Tavai will be asked to step up -- likely into a starting spot -- and redshirt freshmen Antwaun Woods, Cody Temple and Christian Heyward will provide depth whether they are ready or not.
"I really feel like they can do it, but we have work to do," Orgeron said.
Production from the line likely will start on the outside, with Horton and fellow senior Devon Kennard, who received extensive action after moving back to defensive end after playing middle linebacker as a sophomore. Orgeron said he already has seen positive steps forward from both Kennard and Horton, and the expectation is for both to play well in their final year.
"Last year Devon had some missed sacks, some missed plays," Orgeron said. "That first year live, everything is a little bit different. He's working on it this year."
This spring is about finding solutions on the inside though. Orgeron pointed out that the strength of the starters rests in their quickness, but added that there are still improvements for both Uko and Tavai to make, which will come only with time.
Two somewhat unexpected possibilities have popped up over the course of the first two days behind them. Moving a defensive end to defensive tackle on occasion has been a staple of the USC defense for the past several years. Armond Armstead was virtually interchangeable at the two spots, and Nick Perry did most of his damage early in his career coming from the interior of the line. Horton also made the move inside on passing downs in the past. During Tuesday's practice, it was clear that another USC defensive end will get a chance to make an impression there, as Greg Townsend Jr. lined up as the second team defensive tackle.
"We'll try him outside and try him inside," Orgeron said of Townsend. "We need some help on the inside, and he's one of the first guys we thought could go inside. Obviously we know he can be a darn good end, but he could be a good tackle too. We'll see what happens."
Orgeron said Townsend wasn't bothered at all by the suggestion and jumped at the chance to work for playing time at several positions. It was another example of how coachable the young players on this unit have been. Perhaps the best example is Woods, who was asked to drop around 30 pounds from his first semester to his second. Woods said he is closing in on his goal weight and has been pleasantly surprised by the improvement in his game, thanks in large part to the conditioning.
"It's a big difference," Woods said in playing at his new weight of slightly more than 300 pounds. "Even coach said I'm 10 times better than last year because I got in better shape. I've had a good two days and am just competing my tail off, being coachable, trying to do everything asked of me. Working hard is my main thing this spring."
The Trojans are still far away from coming up with surefire solutions at either interior spot, but through two practices, there have been some notable steps taken from the offseason, when the second team on the depth chart likely was represented by question marks.
"It's going to be good," said Orgeron, always optimistic about his position group. "I'm excited to be out here getting going again."
An offensive bright spot
It's always interesting to hear head coach Lane Kiffin discuss practice after days that largely are dominated by the defense. An offensive mind through and through, he's very comfortable with where his allegiances lie.
"I thought today was kind of sloppy, which is usual -- all the energy around day one of getting out here -- and then having to come back out here a little sore," Kiffin said. "I thought the defense kind of dominated the day for the most part."
Kiffin did acknowledge that, without pads, the running game is difficult to judge, as defensive linemen are always the beneficiaries of jersey-only practices. Kiffin said the team will be in pads for Saturday's practice.
But even during a day where the defense constantly stepped up, wide receiver Marqise Lee shone. Obviously the Trojans are eagerly awaiting the return of Robert Woods -- out while recovering from ankle surgery -- but Lee again stole the show, making several terrific catches, including one that had teammates gasping.
"The good thing is I don't know which one you're referring to," Kiffin said when asked about the grab. "He makes a couple of those a day. He was the MVP of today."
On the play in question, Lee ran down the middle of the field and looked to be overthrown by Matt Barkley by several feet. Of course, that's still within range for Lee, who went up high and came down with the reception.
"He's just unique," Kiffin said. "He's a great player -- potential to be the best receiver to ever play here -- but what makes him more special is his mindset."
Thursday practice notes
Injury report: The injury list remained the same from Tuesday, and Junior Pomee and Xavier Grimble did not return after leaving Tuesday's practice. On Thursday, George Farmer (hamstring) and Greg Townsend Jr. (back) came out during practice. Kiffin said he is hoping that the week off for spring break will allow for several of the injured players to return to the field.
D.J. Morgan broke off a long touchdown run during team drills, sprinting 65 yards up the middle for the score. Morgan looks noticeably improved from last year, and Kiffin remarked after practice that he seems to be much healthier, now more than two years removed from his high school injury. "He's making cuts a little bit better," Kiffin said. "He looks better, and our track people have said that too -- that he looks a lot better than the year before."
Fullback Soma Vainuku continues to impress with his receiving ability. He pulled down a one-handed reception during individual drills and looks very comfortable coming out of the backfield. Saturday likely will mark the beginning of the big tests for Vainuku, as the pads come on and his blocking ability will be on display.
Before he left with the injury, Farmer engaged Anthony Brown in several exciting one-on-one matchups. After Brown knocked the first pass away, Farmer came back and completely lost Brown on a double move. A hard-fought battle was won by Farmer on the next play, going to the ground for a short completion.
Victor Blackwell had a very solid day, getting onto the receiving end of at least three deep balls -- two of them ended 7-on-7 drills and run drills -- but he met his match in Nickell Robey during one-on-ones. Robey stuck with Blackwell on a double move and made it to the sideline in time to break up the pass. Defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders was excited about the play, but said he wanted the interception. It's obvious from just two practices that Sanders knows what he has in Robey and expects nothing short of perfection.
Kennard was very active on the day, recording several sacks and a tackle for loss.
Wittek and Cody Kessler rotated behind Barkley again, as Kessler spent one drive with the first team. Kiffin said that Barkley's reps would begin to be limited, as they look to avoid injury and give more work to the backups.
Kiffin also spoke about Matt Kalil inviting him to the NFL draft. He said that he definitely would be there, but joked that when the offer was first extended, he thought "bringing him to the draft" would entail Kalil flying him out and taking care of him. "I didn't know he just meant 'sit at my table,' " Kiffin said. "And I have to buy my own ticket."
Coaches from West Hills Chaminade and Stockton Lincoln were in attendance. Chaminade is home to running back Terrell Newby, while Lincoln boasts tailback Justin Davis, who is one of the Trojans top offensive targets for the 2013 class.
Erik McKinney is the recruiting editor for WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 2004. He can be reached at email@example.com.