2012 USC defensive review

Despite improved pass rush, Trojans couldn't contain speedy Pac-12 attacks

Updated: January 9, 2013, 11:38 AM ET
By Johnny Curren | WeAreSC.com

Morgan Breslin Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireMorgan Breslin was a pleasant surprise for a USC team that racked up 45 sacks in 2012 after having only 31 in 2011.
It was an up-and-down season for the 2012 USC defense, and unfortunately for coach Lane Kiffin, it was ultimately filled with quite a bit more valleys than peaks. Giving up an average of 394 yards per game -- the No. 60 mark in the nation -- the Trojans struggled against just about every proficient offense they faced.

But it was the up-tempo, spread attacks so prevalent in the Pac-12 that really gave the defense fits, a fact that first became evident in Arizona's 39-36 comeback victory over USC on Oct. 27, and reached a crescendo in a Nov. 3 loss to Oregon when the Trojans allowed 62 points and 730 yards of total offense  both record numbers for USC opponents.

But it wasn't all bad. Led by a much-improved defensive line, the team's pass rush was formidable to say the least, compiling 45 sacks as opposed to the 2011 mark of 31. And they were a much more opportunistic bunch, too, racking up 19 interceptions and 32 total takeaways -- 15 more than a year ago.

It just wasn't enough, though, and the lack of production from the defense  particularly down the stretch  was a major reason for the team's disappointing end-of-season skid, as USC dropped five of its last six games on its way to a record of 7-6.

With Monte Kiffin -- the highly regarded assistant head coach for the defense -- having now resigned and likely on his way back to the NFL, the younger Kiffin must choose wisely as he looks for a replacement who can help turn things around for the Trojans in 2013.

Defensive Line

A perceived weak spot prior to the beginning of fall camp, the defensive line quickly developed into the story of the year on defense. Amassing a phenomenal 38 sacks as a unit, Ed Orgeron's group gave the Trojans a presence on the front line that they simply didn't possess in 2011. Lacking in terms of depth, however, there were instances when they wore down against some of the bigger, more physical fronts they went up against like those at Notre Dame and Stanford.

Spearheading the defensive line's surge in production was the surprise of the unit, Morgan Breslin. With Devon Kennard out for the season due to injury, the Diablo Valley College (Pleasant Hill, Calif.) transfer slid into the starting slot and seized what was a golden opportunity. Quick and relentless, the 6-foot-2, 250-pounder led the team with 19.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks, giving the Trojans their most accomplished pass rusher since Kenechi Udeze.

The other major revelation along the defensive line was Leonard Williams, the 2012 Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Referred to as a classic "SEC-style" lineman by Kiffin on more than a few occasions, he brought a unique combination of athleticism and 6-5, 270-pound size to the fold at the three-technique tackle spot, racking up eight sacks and 64 tackles  including 14 alone against Georgia Tech.

At the defensive end position opposite Breslin, Wes Horton was back as a starter for the fourth consecutive year. After missing time early on due to an undisclosed injury, the senior captain gave a big boost to the group as he rounded back into form, finishing with 43 tackles and 5.5 sacks.

George Uko showed nice versatility in 2012, lining up at nose tackle, the three-technique tackle spot and even defensive end.

Antwaun Woods began the season atop the depth chart at nose, but with the emergence of Williams, he was ultimately used more in a reserve role, while part-time starter J.R. Tavai, Greg Townsend Jr., Kevin Greene and Christian Heyward also factored into the rotation.

Linebacker

Possessing experience and speed, the Trojans' linebacker corps returned all three starters from the 2011 squad. And while it did enjoy some moderate success in 2012, it also had more than its share of difficulties as the Trojans ranked No. 69 in the nation against the run. It was those fast-paced, wide-open offenses that this unit struggled most against, especially when it came to containing dual-threat quarterbacks like Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley.

Still, there were a few individual standouts, most notably sophomore Hayes Pullard. Spending most of his time on the outside at weak-side linebacker, he was the group's most consistent performer, recording 107 tackles on the season -- the No. 2 mark on the team. With a remarkable football IQ, he was even able to make the tough switch to middle linebacker on a few occasions, including during a portion of the Hyundai Sun Bowl where he was impressive in a loss, making a staggering 16 stops.

Dion Bailey -- back for his second season as a starter at strong-side linebacker  showed off his unique abilities as a former ball-hawking safety, racking up 80 tackles, eight tackles for loss and a team-best four interceptions.

It was a year of highs and lows for Lamar Dawson, the primary starter at middle linebacker. Slowed at the beginning of the season with an undisclosed injury, he would play lights-out in games like those against Stanford and California, only to somewhat disappear in others.

[+] EnlargeT.J. McDonald
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireSenior safety T.J. McDonald led an opportunistic but inconsistent USC secondary with 112 tackles.
Anthony Sarao and Tony Burnett were two reserves who played significant minutes, both contributing solidly on the outside and making one start each.

Marquis Simmons, Simione Vehikite and Will Andrew were a few more backups, while freshman Scott Starr saw his season cut short by a neck injury.

Secondary

Much more opportunistic than they were a year ago, USC's defensive backs certainly helped the team's cause in the turnover department, but they also missed way too many tackles and they were more than a little suspect in coverage on several occasions, allowing teams like Syracuse and Oregon to put up big numbers through the air.

One position marked by inconsistent play throughout the schedule was the cornerback spot opposite Nickell Robey. With the most effective 2011 starter, Isiah Wiley, declared academically ineligible just prior to the start of the season, the Trojans were dealt a blow they would never really recover from. Anthony Brown, Torin Harris and Kevon Seymour all took shots here, before safety Josh Shaw was finally moved over prior to the Washington game, providing a more stable presence.

On the other side, Robey was sturdy as always, but with the opposition throwing to the other side so often, the 2012 All-Pac-12 second-teamer was rarely tested.

T.J. McDonald returned for his third straight season as a starter at free safety. Winning team awards for the Most Inspirational Player as well as Defensive Perimeter Player of the Year, he paced the Trojans with 112 tackles, and was used effectively as a hybrid-defensive end in certain schemes.

Jawanza Starling added 42 tackles as the team's starting strong safety, with Drew McAllister, Demetrius Wright and Gerald Bowman providing depth.

Johnny Curren

WeAreSC, Reporter