Despite all the attention, USC's Leonard Williams stays levelheaded

Leonard Williams, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound junior lineman, is considered the anchor for USC's defense

The compliments and accolades started pouring in almost from the moment defensive lineman Leonard Williams arrived at USC two years ago.

He was a starter by the third game of his first season and was selected a Freshman All-American.

Last November, Athletic Director Pat Haden tweeted that Williams was one of the top five players he had seen in more than 40 years of being around Trojans football.

"He is that good," Haden wrote.

Shortly after the 2014 NFL draft concluded, one prognosticator said Williams would be the No. 1 pick in 2015. Williams will be a draft-eligible junior after this season.

So USC's coaching staff could be challenged to keep Williams humble.

Except it's apparently not necessary.

"The humble part," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said, "is part of Leonard's DNA."

The 6-foot-5, 300-pound Williams also was blessed with size and speed.

Last season, despite a right shoulder injury that required off-season surgery, he manhandled opponents and recorded 13 1/2 tackles for losses, including six sacks.

Williams sat out spring practice but came back determined to elevate his performance.

"He knows he has deficiencies and he's trying to improve them," defensive line coach Chris Wilson said.

Said Coach Steve Sarkisian: "He's working to play even beyond what his talent says he should play."

Most of the media's focus during USC spring practice and training camp has been on Sarkisian's fast-paced, no-huddle offense. But the Trojans' strength is expected to be a front seven led by senior linebacker Hayes Pullard and Williams.

Williams' versatility — he can play every position on the line — should allow the Trojans to utilize multiple variations of a 3-4 hybrid scheme.

"What he can do kind of dictates some of the coverages you can play," Wilcox said.

Williams is preparing for double-teams and other strategies that will be deployed to slow him down. He also has heightened awareness of providing an example for younger players.

On Saturday, he was announced as one of six captains elected by teammates.

"I've never been that type of guy that wants to step up and be that big leader on the team pushing everybody," said Williams, who came to USC from Mainland High in Daytona Beach, Fla. "At the same time, I do want to have my team going full speed."

It might take a few games for the defense to come together.

Lineman Kenny Bigelow suffered a season-ending knee injury during summer workouts and linebacker Jabari Ruffin suffered a season-ending knee injury early in training camp.

Williams worked through a left shoulder strain during training camp, junior tackle Antwaun Woods was sidelined for nearly a week because of a hyperextended elbow and his possible backup, Cody Temple, is recovering from a concussion.

But the Trojans' line appears to have adequate depth. Transfers Claude Pelon and Delvon Simmons are large and quick. Greg Townsend Jr. looks to be appears recovered from ankle and knee injuries that sidelined him last season.

Pullard anchors a linebacker corps that includes junior Anthony Sarao playing inside and versatile senior J.R. Tavai and sophomore Scott Felix on the outside.

In the aftermath of Ruffin's injury, coaches also implemented a plan that had been fermenting since spring. Safety Su'a Cravens, a Freshman All-American last season, will be deployed closer to the line of scrimmage as a linebacker against certain opponents.

Sarkisian has said that Cravens would probably play that spot against spread teams such as Arizona, Arizona State and California. He will play farther from the line of scrimmage against more traditional offenses such as Stanford's.

Sophomore linebackers Quinton Powell and Michael Hutchings will play and freshmen Uchenna Nwosu and Olajuwon Tucker also are available.

Fifth-year senior Josh Shaw and junior Kevon Seymour will start at cornerback with redshirt freshman Chris Hawkins and freshman Adoree' Jackson as backups.

Cravens, sophomore Leon McQuay III and senior Gerald Bowman will rotate at safety.

Williams said before training camp that he was not thinking about his NFL future and was focused instead on helping USC "bring a dominance back."

That mission begins Saturday when the Trojans play Fresno State in their opener at the Coliseum.

Williams said his first two seasons prepared him for the challenge.

Sometimes, he said, it feels as if he only recently began a college career that could be among the Trojans' most decorated by the time it is complete.

"Without even realizing it," he said, "everything went by so fast."

Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein

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