After much movement, USC's Devon Kennard has found his spot

After much movement, USC's Devon Kennard has found his spot
USC's Devon Kennard, top, sacks Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton during last week's win. Kennard has developed into a top defensive threat for the Trojans. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Devon Kennard is on the verge of earning a master's degree. His NFL draft stock is rising. And he leads a stingy USC defense that ranks among the best in college football.

He is not sure how much of that would have been possible had he not suffered a season-ending injury on the eve of training camp last season.


"I'm a firm believer in God always has a plan," Kennard said this week.

After surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle, Kennard redshirted last season as USC slipped from preseason No. 1 to a 7-6 finish.

He agonized watching teammates struggle, but the year away provided Kennard an opportunity to make headway toward a postgraduate degree in communication management.

It also gave him a fifth season of eligibility. And when Clancy Pendergast joined Coach Lane Kiffin's staff, Kennard moved from end to a hybrid linebacker position in the new defensive coordinator's blitzing "52" scheme.

The result: Kennard is thriving on and off the field.

The 6-foot-3, 255-pound Kennard has five tackles for losses, including three of the Trojans' 16 sacks. He also has broken up three passes and hurried the quarterback three times.

"I can't imagine someone playing better," Kiffin said. "He's been a dominant force out there on the outside, whether it's against backs, tight ends, tackles, whoever it is. His film right now is really elite level."

Kennard, who graduated from Phoenix Desert Vista High, hopes to elevate his performance further when USC plays Arizona State in a key Pac-12 Conference South division game Saturday night.

The game will mark Kennard's third collegiate start before hometown fans at Sun Devil Stadium.

He's moved around on the football field too. Kennard arrived at USC as a defensive end. He played as a reserve for the first half of his freshman season before starting for the first time in place of injured Everson Griffen against Arizona State.

The next week, former coach Pete Carroll moved Kennard to outside linebacker and he started at that spot the rest of the season.

In 2010, with Carroll leaving to coach the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, Monte Kiffin oversaw the defense and moved Kennard to middle linebacker. The bulked-up sophomore started eight games but finished the season as a backup. He underwent arthroscopic hip surgery after the season.

In 2011, Kennard returned to end, starting five games and playing as a reserve in the others. He was preparing for a final season and a shot at the 2013 NFL draft when he was injured lifting weights in late July 2012.

Instead of making tackles, Kennard watched as the Trojans defense suffered embarrassing lapses.


When Pendergast replaced Monte Kiffin last January, Kennard did not know what to expect from a coach who had been the Arizona Cardinals' defensive coordinator when Kennard was a local teen. But it did not take Pendergast long to evaluate Kennard.

"After the first few days of spring practice, I could see he was one of those guys that could give us a lot of flexibility," Pendergast said.

Under Carroll and Monte Kiffin, Kennard played end mostly out of a three-point stance. In Pendergast's scheme, Kennard stands up on the edge and he can either rush or drop into coverage.

"The position fit really has been good for him to be able to stand up and play outside and look inside at the ball," Pendergast said.

Kennard will be looking to create turnovers against an Arizona State team that is 2-1 overall and 0-1 in the Pac-12 after last week's 42-28 loss at Stanford.

USC is 3-1 and has won consecutive games against Boston College and Utah State since losing to Washington State in its conference opener.

Kennard was part of a Trojans victory at Sun Devil Stadium in 2009, and a loss in 2011. "There's definitely a little significance," he said of Saturday's game. "It's the last time I'm going to be able to play in front of my home city at the college level.

"I'm excited for that but for the most part I'm keeping an even keel. … I'm keeping my emotions down and just staying focused on the game."

And his future.

"I don't look back," he said. "I feel this situation is even better for me. Now I get to play in this defense my last year and show what I can do and finish my master's."

Twitter: @latimesklein