2004 USC preview: Defense

Matt Grootegoed

This unit has a chance to be one of the best in college football this year with a talented group at linebacker, a pair of honors candidates up front and an experienced group in the secondary. Pete Carroll returns to call the shots on defense and in his three years at USC it's been made clear that his defensive mind is at another level as it relates to the college game.

Secondary

Jason Leach (FS) and Darnell Bing (SS) return as starters at safety and that gives Carroll a pair of big hitters who are comfortable with each other after starting all last season. Leach is just a solid player, a physical enforcer who brings the experience of someone who has been playing in this system for four years. Bing is the prototype for the position with his combination of size, speed and ability. The expectations are definitely raised this season for Darnell, he's even being mentioned on several pre-season All-American watch lists, and he's slimmed down a little in an effort to be more agile. The biggest difference in his play should come with knowing his role in the defense and being more reactive. This fall will also bring the addition of Scott Ware and that will give Carroll the flexibility to rotate three safeties who all have the ability to play either spot. Ware has impressed this summer with his work ethic and he's the type of big play guy who should fit right in with Carroll's style of defense. Incoming freshman Josh Pinkard, who was named MVP of the recent Shrine All-Star game, will push for playing time along with Brandon Ting and Greg Farr.

The Trojans must replace a pair of graduated starters at corner and the upcoming battle in fall camp should be intense as Kevin Arbet, in his sixth year of eligibility, and Ronald Nunn look to hold off a group of talented youngsters. Arbet and Nunn will head into camp as the starters with Arbet having missed the last two seasons with foot injuries and Nunn having a history of injury trouble as well. Both are savvy players and good athletes but Carroll knows you can never have too much depth at corner and the Trojans certainly have a lot of guys waiting for their chance. Justin Wyatt has seen a lot of playing time and is ready to be a more regular contributor while Terrell Thomas and Eric Wright are freshmen with lots of potential and they could get a long look. John Walker, Ryan Ting and Chris Bocage will also be in the mix. DeSean Cunningham, a track runner, has been working out at corner during summer drills and may walk-on in the fall.

Linebacker

The Trojans will feature a trio of throwback linebackers in the starting line-up. When you think of Groots, Tatupu and Sartz you don't automatically think of speed or graceful athleticism. What you do think about is the instinct, scrappiness and football intelligence they all seem to possess. Matt Grootegoed enters his senior year healthy and that's good news for USC fans who have grown to love his style of play. Groots is simply a ballhawk who has a nose for the football and he'll be considered for national honors this season. Lofa filled a seemingly major hole last year when Oscar Lua went down and all Lofa did was end up leading the team in tackles. Tatupu is over 240 pounds these days and settled in as a leader on the defense. Dallas Sartz has also bulked up this past off-season, particularly in the upper body, and he will move into the strongside role with Groots moving to the weakside. Dallas had always performed well in a variety of roles and now will be the time for him to shine as a starter.

In addition to the terrific first unit, USC also boasts an impressive group of reserve linebackers. Lua came on toward the end of spring with flashes of his old speed and he says the knee feels great right now. Oscar will fight for time in the middle along with incoming JC transfer Ryan Powdrell. Powdrell has shown quick feet so far in drills and is the biggest and fastest middle backer. The competition and depth in the middle should be good (walk-on Marco Chavez should contribute on special teams). Thomas Williams, a physical player who is ready to get on the field, will back-up Sartz while Keith Rivers and Collin Ashton will play behind Groots. Rivers has been here all summer taking part in workouts and drills, he looks great. Ashton started a couple games last season during the national title run.

Line

The men up front will be led by Shaun Cody, an All-American is every sense of the word. Shaun has starred at defensive tackle during his USC career and it speaks to his talent that the coaches have no reservations about moving him to end for his senior year. It doesn't really matter where he lines up, Shaun is at 290 pounds these days and in the best shape of his life so he'll be ready to do damage from either spot. With so much d-line attention paid to Cody it's important to note that Mike Patterson has put together a very nice career of his own. Mike enters his senior season as one of the top nose tackles in the country with his amazingly quick first step and tenacious play. Frostee Rucker will begin fall camp as the expected starter on the end opposite Cody. Rucker missed the majority of spring drills with a toe injury but says he is healthy now and ready to go. One of the reasons Cody was moved was a desire on the part of the coaches to get Manuel Wright on the field. Wright will be the starter at tackle after giving USC fans a brief glimpse of his potential in the Rose Bowl with a couple big plays.

Sedrick Ellis will be the primary back-up to Patterson as he is the heir apparent to the nose tackle spot. Sed has really bulked up in the Carlisle training program during the off-season. Rucker will be challenged for playing time by Lawrence Jackson, who starred in the Trojan Huddle scrimmage, and incoming freshman Jeff Schweiger. There are a lot of other quality players who will be battling for time on the line and it will be interesting to see how those competitions play out. Guys like LaJuan Ramsey and Travis Tofi have been in the system and have shown that they can contribute. You also have younger guys like Chris Barrett, Ryan Watson and Alex Morrow as well as incoming JC transfer Rashaad Goodrum and freshmen Thomas Herring, Fili Moala and Jimmy Miller (could end up on offense). That's a lot of talent in one group and you know the practice sessions are going to be intense with Ed Orgeron trying to determine which players will earn that coveted playing time.

Summary: We're starting to see the defense evolve with players that have been recruited by Pete Carroll to fit his system. It's impressive when you consider what Carroll has done in recent years (nine sacks in one game against Michigan!) and that level of play should only improve as he continues to put the pieces of his puzzle together. We've got a nice blend of players who can run but who will also hit you and that style of play certainly mirrors the image of their coach. With Carroll running the show the 2004 USC defense figures to show more of the stifling and dominating play that we've grown accustomed to seeing in recent years.

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