Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Only in Los Angeles could anyone assemble such a cast.

Southern Cal again begins the season looking down on the rest of college football. But there’s a new formula for success in Troy.

Over the past five seasons, Pete Carroll‘s program has produced a Division I-A-best 59-6 record behind three Heisman Trophy winners and a high-octane offense. But this season’s top-ranked Trojans are defined by one of the most talented defenses in college history.

“You watch their tapes, and you don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” said Dennis Erickson, beginning his first season with Arizona State after superb stints at Washington State (1987-88), Miami (1989-94) and Oregon State (1999-2002). “Their defense is like a horror film for opponents. I coached some pretty special groups at Miami, but I think USC‘s group this year is on another level.”

Over the last two decades, three college defenses — 1992 Alabama, 2001 Miami and 2003 USC — have sent nine or more starters to the NFL. Thanks to an unprecedented three consecutive No. 1 recruiting classes, USC’s current crew has equal experience, more speed and considerably more depth than any of those three.

“There is no question in my mind that USC is the best team in the country and maybe the best team in the history of college football,” first-year Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said. “They’re outstanding offensively and absolutely off the charts defensively.”


After spending most of last season in a 3-4 alignment, USC returns to a conventional 4-3 base this season. Seniors Sedrick Ellis and Lawrence Jackson both delayed first-round NFL paychecks to give the Trojans arguably the strongest tackle/end combination in the nation. Junior run-stuffer Fili Moala (6-foot-4, 295 pounds) returns at the other tackle spot, while ultra-touted junior speed rusher Kyle Moore puts his hand down at the other end slot after struggling in last season’s 3-4.

But blue-chip depth is what makes this unit special. Preseason All-Americans Ellis and Jackson are locked in up front, but Moala is backed up by sensational sophomores Averell Spicer (6-2, 295) and Derek Simmons (6-5, 293). And if Moore fails to flourish in the 4-3, don’t be surprised to see Carroll turn to true freshman Everson Griffen (6-4, 265), the top pass rusher in last year’s prep class and an uber-talent dubbed “Superfreak” by the USC coaching staff.

“Everson is so gifted that we’ve got to get him some snaps,” Carroll said. “Watching the way Kyle has reacted to that competition has been a blast. I can’t wait to turn those guys loose in a game because that group has been playing at such a high level in practice.”

Middle maulers

Though the Trojans’ defense has no weakness, the starting linebacking corps of senior Keith Rivers and juniors Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing is clearly the unit’s strength. All three have made the Butkus watch list and every preseason All-America list, giving USC the most formidable linebacking corps since Miami’s famed Bermuda Triangle of 1992 (Michael Barrow, Jessie Armstead and Darrin Smith).

Maualuga (6-3, 253) anchors the middle, while Rivers and Cushing are sideline-to-sideline terrors with completely contrasting personalities.

“Rivers is one of the most courteous, conscientious guys you’ll ever meet,” USC linebacker coach Ken Norton Jr. said. “Once he steps on that field, he flips a switch, and he’s a shark in search of prey. But he’s generally very reserved.

” ‘Cush’ is a mess. He’s a little more Hollywood.”

Cushing, who led the team in tackles for loss last season (13.5) and was named defensive MVP of USC’s Rose Bowl rout of Michigan, might be the chattiest member of the Trojans’ front seven.

“We’re America’s Team,” Cushing said last week. “Everyone wants to play us. People love to be around the program. I mean, there are celebrities at every practice.”

Secondary to none

A relative soft spot on otherwise-stout USC defenses in recent seasons, the secondary should be outstanding this season.

With all four starters returning, plus 2005 starting safety Josh Pinkard back from a knee injury that sidelined him all of last season, the Trojans might have the nation’s most talented defensive backfield.

Virtually every NFL scout lists senior Terrell Thomas as the nation’s top cover corner. And at 6-4, 225 pounds, punishing sophomore safety Taylor Mays looks like the second coming of Sean Taylor. Two-year starter Kevin Ellison returns at strong safety, and Pinkard and junior Cary Harris are bracketed at the other corner slot.

Asked the best way to attack such a defense, one Pac-10 coach simply sighed and said, “I honestly don’t know. Maybe you just punt and pray.”

Given such an embarrassment of riches, complacency could be an issue. But a schedule that requires the Trojans to play five of their six toughest games on the road (Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oregon, California and Arizona State) should help Carroll keep his crew focused.

“I think of USC the way I thought of Florida last year,” ESPN analyst Chris Fowler said last week. “I thought they were clearly the most talented team, but I never thought they were capable of navigating that schedule unscathed.

“USC is by far the most talented team this season, so much so that coaches we talk to are almost in awe of their talent. But I still think they’ll trip up somewhere along the way.”

Few would agree. In fact, when the books close on this college football season the day after the BCS title game (Jan. 7 at the Louisiana Superdome), don’t be surprised if folks are struggling to find a historical peer for the 2007 Trojans and what should be an epic defense.

“The best defense ever? That’s covering an awful lot of ground, but I can’t say it’s the first time I’ve fielded the question,” Carroll said. “We haven’t played a game yet, and I keep telling them I had a pretty good group here a few years back with guys like Shaun Cody, Mike Patterson, Lofa Tatupu and [Kenechi] Udeze. They’ve got a ways to go before I can mention them in the same breath with that group.

“But I do think this group has a chance to be special. And I’ll be the first to admit I wouldn’t want to trade with anybody.”

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