- Erik McKinney, RecruitingNation
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LOS ANGELES -- To start each spring practice this year, the USC Trojans were greeted by the words "Prep not hype" painted on the field. While it will be tough to ignore the hype that continues to build as the 2012 season approaches, WeAreSC takes a look back at spring ball and where the Trojans now stand after 15 practices. Friday looks at the defense.
It was tough to ignore the play of defensive ends Wes Horton and Devon Kennard, who stepped up as the senior leaders along the line. Both players gave the offensive tackles fits at times and accomplished just about everything they set out to do this spring.
On the inside, George Uko solidified his spot at defensive tackle with a nice spring, but the Trojans weren't able to find a definite answer to fill the hole at nose tackle. J.R. Tavai and Antwaun Woods shared duties there, with Tavai earning the starting nod on the final spring depth chart. Cody Temple was showing signs of being able to help at that spot, as well, until a foot injury forced him to the sideline.
Greg Townsend made an early move from defensive end to defensive tackle but bounced back outside for good and turned in a solid spring. He likely will be called upon as the third end this fall and also has the ability to slide inside. Morgan Breslin and Kevin Greene worked behind Horton, and that battle for the backup spot likely will continue into the fall, with Leonard Williams slated to join. Injuries kept defensive end DeVante Wilson and defensive tackle Christian Heyward off the field for the entirety of spring ball. Wilson is still recovering from a knee injury that delayed his enrollment at USC by a year. Heyward missed an opportunity to make a statement behind Uko, as walk-on Zack Kusnir sits in the No. 2 spot at defensive tackle.
The sophomore squad of linebackers turned in a fantastic spring. While Dion Bailey showed well despite dealing with hamstring and tooth issues, Hayes Pullard became one of the defensive leaders. He seemed to make a number of plays during every practice. Middle linebacker Lamar Dawson has firmly grasped his leadership position now that he has stepped into the starting role. It was tough to find any kind of fault with the starters this spring.
Behind them, there were more pleasant surprises for the defensive coaches. Early enrollee Scott Starr stepped in as the backup middle linebacker and performed well in calling the defenses despite being in his first semester at USC. Anthony Sarao continued his improvement at weakside linebacker behind Pullard. But the biggest surprise might have been the move of Tony Burnett from safety to strongside linebacker. Like Madden's position move, this one paid off quickly for the Trojans, as Burnett was a natural at the spot. The move closer to the line of scrimmage seems to play into all of Burnett's strengths -- physical nature, tackling ability -- without forcing him to constantly cover opposing receivers.
Arguably the most impressive position group this spring, the cornerback spot saw impressive performances from a number of players. Nickell Robey led the group with what has become his standard performance. Opposite Robey, Isiah Wiley stepped up in a big way, capping off his impressive spring showing with a very good spring game. Brian Baucham bounced back from academic ineligibility last season to have a tremendous spring. Baucham seemed to be around the ball at all times, coming up with big plays, including an interception in the spring game.
Anthony Brown continued to provide a tough presence at cornerback and certainly will be in the mix for playing time this fall. Redshirt freshman Ryan Henderson dealt with a variety of injuries, but there was no denying his athletic ability when he was on the field. The biggest disappointment at this spot was the absence of Torin Harris, who continues to miss time due to a nerve issue in his shoulder. Harris was listed as a co-starter on the final depth chart but has missed the last several months with the injury.
It'd be tough to find a defensive player who turned in a better spring than free safety T.J. McDonald, who was all over the field and made plays at every level. He looks to be confident in his ability on the field and leadership off of it and is taking every step to make sure the decision to return for his senior season pays off. Behind him, Drew McAllister overcame an injury to his hand to turn in another productive spring. The ballhawk recorded several interceptions throughout the spring, including one in the spring game. Though a starting spot is blocked by McDonald, it wouldn't be surprising at all to see the coaches lean on McAllister some this season.
At strong safety, a position battle unfolded, as Demetrius Wright pushed returning starter Jawanza Starling through all 15 practices. Wright earned time with the first team on several occasions, and it appears as though the coaches feel comfortable enough with either player to rely on them this fall. Off the field, big news came down in regard to Joshua Shaw, as the transfer from Florida was granted a waiver by the NCAA, which will allow him immediate eligibility this fall. Shaw was bothered by a back injury and broken rib this spring but should be ready to go for fall camp. He'll likely start out at safety, but could spend time at cornerback as well.
Andre Heidari has become a real weapon for the Trojans, and USC fans need to look no further than the 48-yard field goal he comfortably nailed during the spring game. It should be interesting to see how the five additional yards on kickoffs affects Heidari, as he didn't have much of a problem reaching the end zone this spring.
There was an interesting twist to the depth chart when returning starter Kyle Negrete was listed as co-starter with redshirt freshman Kris Albarado. Kiffin said there is a possibility that Negrete could handle the shorter punts, while Albarado takes the longer ones. It's tough to keep an eye on the punters during the spring, as they aren't asked to punt in game situations, and most of their attempts are sailing into a net. During warmups for scrimmages at the Coliseum, Negrete showed a knack for downing balls inside the 5-yard line. Negrete also unleashed some big kicks this spring, as well.
A veteran USC defense continued to make strides in the spring, especially in the secondary.