Although the USC Trojans boast an all-star offensive with many returning stars, it will be extremely important for the defense to keep big time opponents in check.
USC lost several key starters from their 2011 defense to the NFL, including DE Nick Perry, DT Christian Tupou, DT DaJohn Harris, MLB Chris Galippo and LB Shane Horton. That said, the Trojans have begun to fill those holes with some very talented players, including the nation’s No. 59-rated defensive player, Michael Hutchings, who has a chance to play outside linebacker next fall.
Let’s take a closer look at the power rankings for each potential starting defensive Trojan player.
J.R. Tavai making a tackle on Stanford player.
Although USC’s defensive front suffered the most losses to graduation or the NFL of any unit on the 2011 team, the Trojans still have some players with experience on the D-line.
For example, sophomore J.R. Tavai was often used as a backup in 2011, but will likely be the starting nose tackle in the Fall. The Mira Costa (CA) High School star appeared in seven games his freshman year, compiling four tackles along the way, two of which came against Stanford.
Tavai missed the Minnesota game due to a hamstring strain, and the UCLA game because of an ankle sprain, but he looks to be healthy now and a front-runner for the starting job at nose tackle.
No. 90, George Uko.
Another sophomore defensive tackle, George Uko started twice in 2011 as a redshirt freshman, against Washington and Oregon. With 18 tackles under his belt, Uko is another front-runner for a starting defensive tackle role. Uko saw action in all 12 games last year, racking up 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a deflection, and was rewarded with a 2011 CollegeFootballNews.com Freshman All-American honorable mention.
Even when he was off the field and redshirting as a freshman in 2010, Uko won USC’s Service Team Defensive Player of the Year Award. Talk about your well-rounded player.
Devon Kennard saying high to the camera.
Often the most highly recruited position on a college football team is defensive end, and returning starter Devon Kennard will fill a much needed leadership role as an experienced senior. With a revamped defensive line, the multipurpose Kennard was a starter for parts of the past two seasons, and finally should have one of the starting defensive end roles as the season kicks off.
Kennard has 135 career tackles with four sacks in his 18 career starts. In 2010, he started at middle linebacker, but was moved after hip-surgery to his original position of defensive end, where he should be staying for his senior season.
Wes Horton taking down Andrew Luck.
Along with Devon Kennard, Wes Horton is the other half of USC’s defensive end dynamic duo. Combined, the two have 209 career tackles and 40 starts, but it’s Horton’s extra experience at defensive end over Kennard that positions him at No. 8.
Horton has started frequently over the past three seasons and will be applying that experience as he fills the other starting defensive end job in 2012.
Horton had a phenomenal year in 2011 with 22 tackles, four sacks, two deflections and a forced fumble, and received several awards as a result. Horton was named to the 2011 All-Pac-12 second team and the Phil Steele All-Pac-12 second team.
Along with Kennard, Horton should be another defensive leader in 2012, bringing more much-needed experience to the line.
No. 55, Lamar Dawson.
The Trojans will bring back a trio of starting sophomores at linebacker in the fall, and a noteworthy one is middle linebacker Lamar Dawson.
After backing up Chris Galippo—now a linebacker for the Indianapolis Colts—in 2011, Dawson moved up to starter for the last four games. Dawson had 25 tackles and a sack in 2011. Despite their young age, the Trojan’s linebacking unit is aggressive and continues to improve.
Dawson, the second Trojan letterman ever from Kentucky, had some ankle issues early in the 2011 season as a freshman, but his performances toward the end of the season—especially against Oregon—make up for the missed games.
Dawson is as strong physically as he is mentally, which should certainly help the Trojans keep opposing running games under control in 2012.
No. 14 Isiah Wiley making a tackle on an Oregon player.
Another player with solid first-string experience, Isiah Wiley will start at cornerback during his senior season to further strengthen the Trojans' pass defense.
Wiley transferred in 2011 from an Arizona junior college, and he rose to a starting role over the last six games of the season. Wiley had 39 tackles, four deflections, a sack and a fumble recovery in 2011, with a team-best five tackles and a deflection against Washington.
Wiley received many awards while in junior college, including NJCAA Region 1 Defensive Co-MVP, and his quick feet and good lateral movement definitely strengthened the Trojan secondary.
Jawanza Starling going for the ball in his 80-yard touchdown fumble return against Notre Dame.
Jawanza Starling, best known for his momentum changing 80-yard scoring fumble return last year that led to a win over Notre Dame, will return at strong safety for his senior year.
Starling has 86 career tackles, 48 of which came from his 11 starts in 2011. Starling would have played in every game last year, however the Floridian injured his ribs and shoulder against Stanford and missed the Colorado game as a result of the injury.
Starling’s two-year starting experience at strong safety makes him a key veteran for the Trojans’ defense and No. 5 on the Power Ranking list.
No. 10 Hayes Pullard taking down a Notre Dame player.
Hayes Pullard is another great example of the talented youth that USC has cultivated on the defensive side of the ball. Pullard was named as a 2011 Freshman All-American linebacker, and with statistics like his, it’s no surprise. As a linebacker on the weak side, Pullard had 81 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in 2011.
Statistics aside, what’s most impressive is that Pullard started all 12 games last season as a redshirt freshman.
Hayes is frequently associated with another star sophomore linebacker (he’s still to come on the list), and after the two of them lead the team in tackles in 2011, we can expect more run stuffing from the Trojans’ young linebacking unit in 2012.
T.J. McDonald taking down a UCLA player.
When T.J McDonald announced last December he would be staying to finish out his senior year, it was definitely one of the best Christmas presents that the Trojans could ask for. (Also, the next day quarterback Matt Barkley announced he too would be staying for the 2012 season, so thank you Santa Claus!)
As a senior free safety, McDonald is definitely a leader in the defensive backfield. He led the Trojans in interceptions last year, and is a candidate for the Thorpe Award in 2012.
With 67 tackles, three interceptions and a blocked punt, McDonald was also selected to the 2011 All-American and All-Pac-12 first teams.
USC’s head coach Lane Kiffin agrees that McDonald is a huge asset for the Trojans, calling him “the best safety in the nation,” and “a true leader on and off the field.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself, Coach Kiffin.
Nickell Robey taking down UCLA quarterback.
Nickell Robey, the other starting cornerback for the Trojans, will start for his third season in 2012 as a junior.
The All-Pac-12 first team honoree lead the Trojans in pass deflections and was one of the team’s best punt returners last season. Robey had 63 tackles, two sacks, nine deflections and two interceptions with a touchdown in 2011 as a cornerback. As a punt returner, Robey had 12 returns good for 132 yards.
His speed is not only put to use on the football field but also on the track, where Robey is a sprinter on the USC’s track team.
Like T.J. McDonald, USC’s head coach Lane Kiffin had some great things to say about the cornerback saying, “Nickell Robey might be the nation’s best cornerback.”
Robey’s versatility makes him one the best—and most vital—defensive players for USC, where he ranks No. 2 on this list.
Dion Bailey after interception against Cal.
Finally, No. 1 on this list goes to returning sophomore-starting linebacker Dion Bailey.
As the linebacker on the strong side, Bailey is the other defensive player that is commonly connected with Hayes Pullard because of their similar statistics. Bailey boasts something that Pullard doesn’t have: Bailey was named the 2011 Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the year. Both linebackers led the Trojans in tackles with 81 a piece, but Bailey also has two sacks to his name.
Before earning the starting job at strong-side linebacker in 2011, Bailey played safety, but his move before 2011 spring practice was definitely the best thing for the stellar young player.
Although Bailey started 11 of 12 games, he missed the Colorado game due to a concussion. During the Stanford game in which he received the concussion, Bailey compiled a game-high 13 tackles before being forced to leave the field.
Dion Bailey’s block-shedding talent and tenacity make him the ideal linebacker, and after a phenomenal rookie showing in 2011, you can expect him to be even better in 2012.