USC already tweaking defense after ugly debut
LOS ANGELES – Monte Kiffin has been coaching long enough to know he probably deserved a tongue-lashing from his boss when his Southern California defense gave up 588 yards and 36 points to Hawaii in his first game.
Because the USC defensive coordinator’s boss is his 35-year-old son, the Kiffins mostly decided to skip the fireworks and move straight to fixing the 16th-ranked Trojans’ problems before Saturday’s home opener against Virginia.
“He was my (son) before the game,” Monte Kiffin said with a laugh. “After the game, he was the head coach. … We need to hurry up, though. When you come in, any time you’re new, it’s going to be different.”
Different wasn’t better for the Trojans in their first game since Pete Carroll’s defense was replaced by the schemes of Kiffin, the architect of countless standout defenses and Tony Dungy’s famed Tampa 2 coverage.
USC simply couldn’t slow down the Warriors in Kiffin’s first game in charge of a unit that lost key depth to NCAA sanctions, giving up the most points by an opponent in a USC opener since 1976. Although the Trojans’ offense and special teams salvaged a victory, Kiffin already is making lineup changes to fill holes in his scheme – and his boss is watching.
“He has very high standards for himself and our defensive unit,” head coach Lane Kiffin said. “He’s going back to work. He’s been at it a long time.”
Monte Kiffin shuffled his defensive line Tuesday night in the Trojans’ first practice in five days, moving defensive end Armond Armstead back to tackle and shifting Jurrell Casey to nose tackle. Talented sophomore Nick Perry, who missed the opener with a sprained ankle, and Wes Horton lined up on the ends of the defensive line, with starting nose tackle DaJohn Harris moving back to the second team.
None of it will matter if the Trojans can’t tackle, which they failed to do with alarming frequency in Honolulu. Yet Lane Kiffin insists the Trojans won’t do any extra work on the defense’s most fundamental skill: With an already thin depth chart, USC simply can’t afford to risk any injuries in practice.
The Trojans did very little hitting during training camp, and they don’t have plans for full contact in practice any time soon.
“It’s not the best scenario,” Lane Kiffin said. “We wish we could have tackled all the way through camp, but we need to be smart and manage our team so we can stay healthy, which is more important. It’s a long season. Even though we had some issues tackling, I like when we look at our injury report this week and see almost all of our front-line guys will be available for our home opener.”
The players solidly back the strategy, uniformly saying they haven’t forgotten how to tackle after just a month with little practice at it. Armstead was among several players who cited Hawaii’s high-octane offense for most of USC’s troubles, saying the matchup was a brutal way to start a new defense.
“I thought we did all right, but the quarterback was getting the ball out quick,” Armstead said. “We did what we could, but it’s hard. All we have to do is keep rushing the passer, and the secondary is going to improve. Everything will improve.”
USC’s defense was the bedrock of its run to seven straight Pac-10 titles and two national championships during the past decade, but much of that mystique evaporated last year.
The Trojans endured humiliating losses to Oregon (47-20) and Stanford (55-21) – both setting a record for the worst loss in Carroll’s tenure. The Cardinal’s blowout win at the Coliseum was USC’s worst since 1966.
Still, few doubt the overall talent level of the Trojans, whose conveyor belt of elite recruits has only been slowed by NCAA scholarship restrictions.
Monte Kiffin can teach the Tampa 2, but he can’t teach experience to a lineup dotted with underclassmen, including sophomore starting safeties Jawanza Starling and T.J. McDonald. Freshman cornerback Nickell Robey was involved in a jaw-dropping 95 plays in his first game, a number Kiffin promises will go down.
He hopes their stumbles against Hawaii’s offense will pay off against Virginia’s more traditional prostyle approach.
“We won the game, you know,” Monte Kiffin said. “We still won. If our offense wasn’t so good, we could have been in trouble. … If you totaled up our career starts on defense, a lot of our guys haven’t played a whole lot. We’re young, but they’re all going to be good players.”