Devon Kennard is in the middle of Trojans’ plans for a revamped linebacker corps
The summons from Monte Kiffin arrived before the start of spring practice.
Devon Kennard had moved from defensive end to strong-side linebacker during his freshman season at USC, but he was unsure how a new coaching staff viewed him.
Now, he was sitting in the office of the Trojans’ assistant head coach for defense, one of the most respected defensive minds in recent NFL history.
“We were just talking and he was asking me questions about alignments — all that stuff,” Kennard recalled. “He said, ‘You’re a pretty intelligent kid.’ ”
Kennard was switched to middle linebacker the next afternoon.
Sunday, when the Trojans scrimmage for the first time in training camp, Kennard will continue to challenge junior Chris Galippo for the starting spot as USC prepares for its Sept. 2 opener at Hawaii.
The competition at middle linebacker is the most intriguing position battle in Lane Kiffin’s first season as USC’s head coach, especially as the Trojans attempt to cope with NCAA sanctions and the transfer of three scholarship linebackers and the loss of one recruit since the end of last season.
Both Kiffins have been buoyed by Kennard’s continuing emergence, Galippo’s improved quickness and strength and the return of senior outside linebackers Malcolm Smith and Michael Morgan.
“I’m sure hoping what was probably our weakness last year will be our strength this year,” Lane Kiffin said of a linebacker corps that stepped in last season after the departures of Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews, Rey Maualuga and Kaluka Maiava, all of whom were chosen in the first three rounds of the 2009 NFL draft.
Galippo started every game in 2009, rarely came off the field and appeared to wear down as the season progressed.
But the 6-foot-2 Galippo, who has had two back surgeries since arriving at USC in 2007, is in perhaps the best physical condition of his career. At 242 pounds, he is about 10 pounds lighter than last season but appears stronger through his upper body.
Kennard, the son of former NFL offensive lineman Derek Kennard, showed his versatility during the final scrimmage before the 2009 opener, when he lined up at defensive end, dropped into coverage and leaped to tip a pass that was intercepted by a defensive back.
He played seven games at defensive end and started in place of injured Everson Griffen against Arizona State. But when Morgan suffered a hand injury in that game, coaches shifted Kennard to the strong-side linebacker spot the next week and he started the rest of the season.
The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Kennard is pushing now to run the defense.
“A lot of guys go from safety to linebacker or linebacker to defensive end — not too many guys go back the other way,” Monte Kiffin said. “I think he’s a special guy.”
As they did during spring practice, Galippo and Kennard have alternated each day as leader of the first-unit defense.
Linebackers coach Joe Barry, who played at USC and coached under Monte Kiffin for six seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is enjoying the show.
“In the NFL, what I’m used to, that’s the greatest thing about training camp — the competition where guys are fighting for their livelihood, fighting for their jobs,” Barry said. “We’ve been able to create that at a number of spots but especially middle linebacker.”
Both Kennard and Galippo also could see action at an outside spot as USC attempts to weather a depth problem that can be traced to before training camp last season.
In late July 2009, doctors determined that incoming freshman Frankie Telfort could not play because of a heart condition.
Eight games into the season, freshman Jarvis Jones suffered a neck injury. Uona Kaveinga transferred to Brigham Young after the Emerald Bowl, and then a week before the NCAA handed down sanctions in June, Jones was granted a release from his scholarship because doctors would not clear him to play. He transferred to Georgia.
Since the penalties were announced, junior Jordan Campbell has left the program and junior college recruit Glen Stanley was released from his letter of intent.
Kiffin is hoping that junior Shane Horton, who has been slowed by a hip problem, redshirt freshmen Marquis Simmons and Simione Vehikite, freshman Hayes Pullard and junior walk-on Ross Cumming can spell the four core linebackers.
Meanwhile, Kennard and Galippo continue to compete.
“Regardless of who’s starting at the end of camp,” Galippo said. “we’re both going to be playing a lot.”
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