Powerful defense helps make USC the No. 1 team in preseason

Bud Withers

By Bud WithersThe Seattle Times

LOS ANGELES–(MCT) The subject is Taylor Mays, USC’s sophomore safety from O’Dea High in Seattle.

“He became a man-child this offseason,” says Trojans quarterback John David Booty. “He ran a 4.25 (40-yard dash). I watched him do it.”

His hands form a circle about the size of a cantaloupe, and Booty says, “His waist is about this big, and he’s about 230. Forty-four inch vertical. It doesn’t even make sense to me. He’s on his knees every night, thanking God.”

If that seems an unseasoned opinion, hear out Pete Carroll, the coach who has headed two NFL teams, on Mays.

“He’s the fastest, biggest, strongest, jumpingest guy in our program,” Carroll says.

Oh yeah. Mays, who started last year as a true freshman, might not start in 2007.

These are the Trojans, remember, and it’s all about competition, from who can bench press the most to who gets in the training-table line the fastest. Contesting Mays for that free-safety spot is junior Josh Pinkard, who tore up a knee last year in the Arkansas opener, auguring Mays’ debut. Now Pinkard has returned, and he doesn’t intend to be a backup.

“Going into last season, I was thinking Josh Pinkard was one of the best athletes on our football team,” says Carroll. “As well as Taylor played, he’s going to have to really do well to hold Josh off. I don’t know how it’s going to work out.”

You won’t hear anybody from USC say this, but it’s possible the Trojans will not only be playing their schedule in 2007, they could be lined up against history. With 10 starters back, their defense could be destined for immortality.

Ask Michigan, which a lot of people thought should have been playing in the national-title game in January. No doubt the Wolverines wish they had been, after USC held them to 12 yards rushing, sacked them six times and dominated the Rose Bowl, 32-18.

The 2006 season brought USC’s first twin losses in the Pac-10 since 2002. But the Trojans made obvious strides against Michigan and believe they’ve come farther in the spring and fall.

“It seems like sometimes we weren’t on at the same time,” says Booty. “The offense was struggling while the defense was on, or vice versa. But the games we both played to our potential, there didn’t seem to be anybody that could beat us.”

When USC wavered, it was because of a relatively pedestrian running game that averaged only 128 yards, or because the Trojans were far from acquisitive on defense, forcing a modest 22 turnovers. Still, they won 11 games.

Now, it’s no leap of faith to imagine them as the nation’s best, which is where they’ve been widely forecast, mostly because of that defense.

It’s telling that among several Trojans interviewed, nobody wanted to venture a name who might be the best player on the defense.

“It’s hard,” says Mays, “because all the guys on our defense, compared to other guys in the country, are really the best at what they do.”

For starters, there are Sedrick Ellis and Lawrence Jackson up front, and a cast of Dobermans at linebacker _ Keith Rivers, Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing, who moves back to a more comfortable spot from defensive end.

“Those are three big draft picks for the NFL in years to come,” Carroll says.

Mays gives himself passing grades for 2006, but adds, “I don’t really like to watch that film. I feel I’m a completely different player, where I’m at now.”

Working with strength coach Chris Carlisle, Mays sought to improve his explosion and change of direction, and he likes the results, saying, “I move better.”

The greater questions _ OK, nitpicks _ are on offense, which lost the sizzling tandem of Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett, representing 141 catches in 2006 for more than 2,000 yards. That means chances for people like Patrick Turner, a 6-foot-5 wideout in the Mike Williams-Jarrett tradition, and 6-3 Vidal Hazelton.

There’s a ludicrous array of talent at tailback, but the question isn’t whether, it’s whom. Already, Emmanuel Moody, bothered by a minor knee injury, has elected to transfer.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s somebody different all the time, like it was last year,” says Booty. “There sure aren’t going to be eight guys playing, but maybe three or four touching the ball.”

Former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is off to head up the Oakland Raiders, but Carroll scoffs at the possibility of erosion there.

“Steve Sarkisian (who assumes the same title) has always been in charge of this offense, always handled meetings, all of the decision-making except for play-calling,” Carroll says.

As for the pulse of the team, Carroll thinks it’s significant that several players could have joined the five who were drafted by the NFL, but didn’t. He named Jackson, Rivers, Ellis, tight end Fred Davis and offensive tackle Sam Baker.

“All those guys deciding to stay sends a message,” Carroll says. “They’re here for real.”

It’s a message that’s impossible to miss: USC is the team to beat this year, in the West and everywhere else.

(c) 2007, The Seattle Times.Visit The Seattle Times Extra on the World Wide Web at http://www.seattletimes.com/

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