April 5, 2009

Practice Insider: Smith making big plays

An outsider looking at the 2009 USC football team could reasonably consider the Trojans' to be an offensive outfit with so many starters returning on that side of the ball.

Defensively, that's where the problems are.

But after the fifth day of spring practice at Howard Jones Field, USC head coach Pete Carroll said he doesn't view things that way, and neither do the players.

"These guys don't want to hear that," Carroll said. "(The coaches) have done a great job getting the guys all revved up. They're playing at a high level. They all can run; they all show it."

The defense dominated USC's first scrimmage of the spring, highlighted by Malcolm Smith's 70-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

"There's no doubt he's a unique athlete," Carroll said. "He's really fast and he's really nifty. He's like a running back playing linebacker"

Smith even knocked Mitch Mustain over with a strong stiff arm during the return, sending a buzz through the large crowd surrounding the field.

"It's just instinct," Smith said. "If someone is attacking you when you have the ball, you have to defend yourself.

"I'm sorry."

Smith hasn't been apologetic for the role he's been thrust into with USC graduating all three starting linebackers from last year.

"It's been about seizing the opportunity," he said. "I've been lucky to get so many good plays in, and I've had a lot of great opportunities to capitalize.

Carroll said the coaching staff wasn't quite sure how Smith would handle the spotlight and the increased responsibility.

"I've loved the way he's jumped into the situation," Carroll said. "He was somewhat reserved last year and wanted to wait things out. We weren't sure what we were going to get here.

"He's been very out going, very assertive. He's taken command of his opportunities so far."

Smith has embodied the defensive attitude the team's been trying to establish.

"I think our defense is coming out and really attacking the ball better than we have in other springs," Carroll said. "I'm excited about the emphasis we've made. It's impressive that we've gotten after it so much because the offensive guys know it. They're working hard to keep hold of it; the defensive guys are just taking it away."

Smith said the linebackers this spring are different than the all-Americans that patrolled the defense last season.

"Our goal is to mainly reload with the same concepts. Our goals have always been the same, to get after the ball, out hit and out hustle," Smith said. "We try top be a little more cerebral. Those guys are all great players, and they're huge. We don't really have that size so we have to get ours our own way."

The defense as a whole got theirs on Sunday afternoon, forcing three turnovers during the scrimmage.

Cornerback Brian Baucham stripped Adam Goodman, setting up Smith's recovery and return. Kevin Thomas picked off Matt Barkley in the end zone, returning it 56 yards. The defense also recovered a Marc Tyler fumble.

"I think the most important thing is we need to take care of the football," quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates said. "It's our ball, and we gave it up too many times today. The energy was there. We just have to keep pounding on it.

"It's a mindset. We just have to take care of it. It's a rule here, and we're going to follow it."

But the defense and Smith have experience making a difference dating back to last season.

"We've just gained a better understanding of the defense. The one thing all the coaches have been harping on all of us is to attack the ball at all opportunities," Smith said. "You saw us as the second team last year coming up with some big turnovers to keep the scoreboard at zero.

"We just want to keep that going."

Sunday's throws

Seven-on-seven drills

Aaron Corp
- Complete to Jordan Cameron.
- Complete to Ronald Johnson for big gain.
- Complete to David Ausberry for short gain.
- Complete to Damian Williams for big gain.

- Incomplete to Steve Gatena, thrown behind him.
- Incomplete to Ausberry.
- Incomplete to Curtis McNeal, dropped.
- Complete underneath to Stafon Johnson.
- Intercepted by Ross Cumming after overthrowing Ronald Johnson.

- Complete to Rhett Ellison.
- Complete to Brandon Carswell after nice throw downfield.
- Complete to Stafon Johnson short.

Garrett Green
- Complete to Williams, stripped free by Smith.
- Complete to Brice Butler downfield for a touchdown.

11-on-11 Scrimmage

- Handoff to Stafon Johnson.
- Complete to Stanley Havili, big hit by Smith.
- Complete to Ronald Johnson.
- Incomplete to C.J. Gable.
- Incomplete to Gable, bobbled and dropped.

- Handoff to Tyler.
- Incomplete to Ausberry.
- Complete to Cooper Stephenson.

- Complete to Butler.
- Pitch to McNeal, big gain.
- Handoff to McNeal, big gain.
- Incomplete, thrown away.
- Handoff to Tyler.
- Incomplete, thrown away.

- Handoff to Stafon Johnson, big run.
- Handoff to Gable.
- Incomplete to Havili.
- Handoff to Tyler.
- Sacked by Everson Griffen.

- Complete to Goodman, stripped by Baucham, recovered and returned for a touchdown by Smith.

- Handoff to Tyler.
- Incomplete to Butler, dropped.
- Complete to Tyler on screen pass, fumbled and recovered by the defense.

- Scramble.
- Complete to Williams for short gain.
- Incomplete to Ronald Johnson.

- Handoff to McNeal.
- Handoff to Tyler.
- Handoff to Tyler.
- Handoff to McNeal.
- Incomplete, deflected by Robert Erickson.
- Complete to Ausberry, touchdown.

- Handoff to Stafon Johnson.
- Complete to Ellison.
- Complete to Ellison.
- Handoff to Stafon Johnson.
- Handoff to Stafon Johnson.
- Handoff to Stafon Johnson.
- Intercepted by Thomas in the end zone, intended for Ellison.

- Incomplete, pressured by DaJohn Harris.
- Incomplete to Butler, dropped.
- Incomplete to Tyler.

Two-minute offense

- Handoff to Gable.
- Complete to Travon Patterson.
- Complete to Patterson.
- Complete to Gable on checkdown.
- Sacked by Nick Perry.
- Complete to Williams.
- Incomplete to Ausberry, deflected by Thomas.
- Complete to Ausberry, juggled before making a great catch.
- Incomplete, thrown away.
- Handoff to Gable.

- Incomplete, thrown away.
- Handoff to Havili.
- Complete to Butler, diving catch.
- Incomplete, hurried by Wes Horton.
- Complete to Brandon Carswell.
- Handoff to Havili.
- Handoff to Havili.
- Handoff to McNeal, 18-yard touchdown run.

Offensive Day

The USC offense continued its quest for rhythm, and for the second practice in a row, it didn't really find it.

"I thought we did OK. It was kind of tough," Mustain said. "It was a little different than what we've been doing, and I would like to play better. We were here and there, kind of sputtering."

Corp said he felt like he performed all right, mostly because he didn't make any major mistakes.

"Overall as an offense, I think we could've executed better," Corp said. "It's going to take time. Hopefully when we come back next week, it'll be better. Every facet of our offense just got a little slow."

The Trojans do have time, but they also have lofty expectations.

"We have to set our goals high. We're definitely not where we want to be," Bates said. "We want to be the best offense in the country. We need to keep working."

Extra Points

• Carroll said Thomas' interception in the end zone to kill a drive really stuck in his craw.

"That was one of the great lessons you can have for Matt Barkley," Carroll said. "We were totally in control of the drive, and it's first-and-two from the two. We gave him a chance to make a play, and he threw it into coverage instead of throwing it away."

Taylor Mays was limited in work on Sunday after suffering from an illness over the weekend. The safeties were even thinner after Drew McAllister injured his hamstring early in the practice.

Butch Lewis moved inside to guard for the first time.

"All of the flexibility and all of the moving around will make us better. It will," Carroll said. "I'm not worried; we're not going to play a game for some time."

Alex Parsons didn't practice after breaking a bone in his right hand on Friday. Parson will have the hand casted after the swelling goes down, and he won't be able snap the ball with his right hand, Carroll said.

• McNeal continues to have an impressive spring, breaking off a number of big runs.

"He looked pretty good today. He had a couple of beautiful plays," Carroll said. "He's doing it in practice now. He's got something special about him. He makes guys miss. And he's fast, and he's tough and he blocks really well. He's done a beautiful job in pass protection.

"He's in the mix."

• Green played well Sunday, but Carroll's not ready to insert him back into the rotation for equal reps.

"We'll just wait and see," Carroll said. "He's got a quad thing that's bothered him, and he can't do anything else. He can't run or do any of the receiver stuff."

Joe Houston had a better day kicking the football, but Carroll said he's not ready to end the competition at kicker.

"It's too early; it's been one week," Carroll said.

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