Monte Kiffin wouldn’t make a prediction.
Asked how much better he expected USC’s defense to be this season, the unit’s architect sidestepped the question the way Oregon’s LaMichael James dodged Trojans tacklers last fall.
“Our goal is to definitely be better,” Kiffin said.
Safety T.J. McDonald hit the question head-on.
“There’s only one way to go from where we were last year,” he said. “We’re going to be way better.”
USC ranked 84th among 120 major-college teams last season, giving up 400 yards a game.
So as USC begins its second season under offense-minded Coach Lane Kiffin, the focus and the pressure are on his father’s defense.
The Trojans tackled poorly, appeared confused and gave up late scoring drives in victories and defeats in 2010.
Washington and Stanford beat the Trojans with last-second field goals in consecutive weeks.
Reflecting on those losses -- the Trojans’ first consecutive defeats since 2001 -- Lane Kiffin memorably said, “If we could have just played somewhat bad, and not horrible,” the Trojans might have been 7-0.
Instead, the Trojans finished 8-5, their worst record since 2001.
“That’s not our defense -- that’s not our offense,” middle linebacker Chris Galippo said this summer. “That’s just sheer character of your team. We’ve got to be able to finish teams off.”
Still, many blamed Monte Kiffin, citing the “Tampa 2" scheme that made him a near-legend in the NFL but was said to be too complex for college players and ineffective against spread-option offenses.
“There’s nothing wrong with the scheme,” Galippo said. “If executed correctly, his schemes are awesome.”
There are indications that the Trojans will be improved defensively when they open Saturday against Minnesota.
Many players are now second-year starters. Others return after playing extensively for the first time last season.
The Trojans also have devoted more time to tackling in practice. Last season, they spent virtually none because coaches feared injuries would deplete depth.
Monte Kiffin also has pulled back, simplifying elements of the defense and installing it at a slower pace.
He referred to the NFL, where time spent with players is not governed by the NCAA. In college, rules cap “countable athletically related activities” at 20 hours a week.
“You have to be careful you don’t overload them,” he said, noting that the goal is to “play fast” by zeroing in on assignments.
“You can’t do that if the playlist is too long,” Kiffin said.
USC should be stronger in all three defensive position groups.
A line that recorded only 19 sacks last season is now experienced and could be deep if Armond Armstead is cleared to play. The versatile senior, a tackle and end, is awaiting results of medical tests for an undisclosed condition.
Galippo once again is starting at middle linebacker, calling plays for a group that could include redshirt freshmen Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard at the outside positions.
McDonald and cornerback Nickell Robey anchor a secondary that will try to rebound from a rough 2010.
Lane Kiffin said this week that the Trojans would utilize more players, especially on defense.
The goal is to keep them fresh for the fourth quarter -- and to avoid a repeat of last season’s late breakdowns.
“You watch those things -- we’re gassed, we’re dead,” he said. “And so we can’t let that happen again.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
12:30 p.m., Channel 7
- ON OFFENSE
It’s a given that QB Matt Barkley is indispensable, but Woods makes Barkley and everyone else in the offense better. He stretches the field and has to be accounted for on every play.
- ON DEFENSE
The fifth-year senior isn’t particularly fast and begins the season nursing a shoulder injury. Still, as USC found out last season, experience counts in the middle.
- ON THE SCHEDULE
SEPT. 10, THE COLISEUM
Games at Arizona State, Notre Dame and Oregon will be huge challenges, as will Stanford at home. But the Trojans cannot look past their Pac-12 opener.
Recent win totals