They were fixtures.
Mike Patterson and Shaun Cody were immovable objects and unblockable pass-rushers during most of Coach Pete Carroll’s first four seasons at USC. They anchored defensive units that ranked among the nation’s best and helped the Trojans win consecutive national titles.
The two tackles, both All-Americans, will play on Sundays this fall, Patterson for the Philadelphia Eagles, Cody for the Detroit Lions.
So when USC begins its quest for an unprecedented third consecutive national championship Sept. 3 at Hawaii, the biggest question will concern the middle of the Trojans’ defensive line.
The answer, the Trojans hope: sophomore Sedrick Ellis and senior LaJuan Ramsey.
“Mike P. and Shaun set great examples for the rest of us,” said Ellis, who replaces Patterson at nose tackle. “They came out here and worked hard every day and did what they were supposed to do, day in and day out.
“It’s a great responsibility to live up to the things that they did and to fill their shoes.”
Patterson started 38 games and recorded 46 tackles for losses, including 21.5 sacks, during a career that culminated with his selection in the first round of the NFL draft. Cody was a second-round pick after starting 40 games and making 31.5 tackles for losses, including 21 sacks.
“Those two guys played the majority of the snaps and they had game savvy and game-readiness about them,” said Jethro Franklin, who replaced Ed Orgeron as defensive line coach after Orgeron was named head coach at Mississippi. “LaJuan and Sedrick played a little bit but not a whole heck of a lot.
“We’ve got to get those snaps they didn’t get in the game and we have to get those in practice.”
Carroll has observed steady improvement in the tackles’ conditioning and play during the first two weeks of training camp. But there is no way to replace the lost experience.
“We don’t make all of the right choices at the right times and that’s going to be different,” Carroll said.
Ellis, a stout 6-foot-1, 285-pound sophomore from Chino, redshirted in 2003 and backed up Patterson last season. He made two tackles in 11 games.
Junior center Ryan Kalil battled daily against Patterson for two seasons, though, and says Ellis is just as quick as Patterson.
“He’s not as good with his hands but he’s so strong, so man-strong, he’s just a good player,” Kalil said.
Ellis said he studied Patterson on the field and in the film and meeting rooms. He has heard the tales about Patterson’s transformation from overweight freshman into an All-American.
“He set the example of what a USC nose tackle was really supposed to be all about,” Ellis said. “I’m just trying to follow his footsteps and take what I learned from him and add my own stuff and get out there and have some fun.”
Ramsey, a 6-3, 290-pound senior from Compton, backed up Cody and also played end at times during his first three seasons. The former Dominguez High player says he is unfazed by the move into the starting lineup.
“When I was a sophomore, I felt like I could compete for a starting spot,” he said. “I just had to play my role. Now, this is my role.”
Ramsey made one tackle in seven games as a freshman in 2002. The next season, he played in 10 games but sat out two because of a shoulder injury. He also struggled with what he thought were constant hip problems.
Ramsey ultimately had hernia surgery in July 2004 and was participating in fall training camp a month later. He played in nine games last season but his abdominal problems continued.
“I came back too soon,” he said.
Now, seemingly fully recovered, he is ready to show he can maintain Cody’s standard and remain healthy.
“I’m in the best shape I’ve been in since I’ve been here,” he said. “It’s not going to be an issue this year.”
Carroll, who also serves as defensive coordinator, says he hopes that will be the case because Ramsey makes defensive calls along the line of scrimmage. The other linemen will depend on his quiet leadership.
“He’s been around our system and our style for a long time,” Carroll said. “He’s kind of the guy they’re looking to.”
With senior Frostee Rucker at one end spot and sophomore Lawrence Jackson at the other, the Trojans do not lack for experienced starters flanking the tackles.
Ellis and Ramsey have impressed the ends during training camp.
According to Jackson, however, the real test will come in the opener.
“You can’t grade anybody until live bullets start flying,” he said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Where USC’s defense has ranked nationally against the run during Pete Carroll’s four-year tenure as coach of the Trojans:
*--* RANK YEAR YPG 1st 2004 79.4 1st 2003 60.2 6th 2002 83.2 16th 2001 179.2