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Unmasked Talent Has Trojans Nazel-Gazing

USC football: Defensive end's ability no longer a secret, and coaches want him to maintain positive momentum.

September 13, 2002|GARY KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The play began with a spectacular display of athleticism, the kind that makes NFL scouts take notice. It ended with an infraction, the kind that makes college coaches chug antacid.

Late in the third quarter of USC's opener against Auburn, Trojan defensive end Omar Nazel launched himself more than five feet above the Coliseum turf and extended his 6-foot-5, 240-pound body along a nearly perfect horizontal plane. As Nazel began his descent, however, he inadvertently grabbed Auburn quarterback Daniel Cobb's facemask.

"The image of me flying through the air looked great on tape and in pictures--and I enjoyed that," Nazel said, grinning. "But it cost my team 15 yards and kept the defense on the field for another set of downs.

"I can't let that happen again. My goal is to make positive contributions."

Nazel, a redshirt junior from Oakland, did far more right than wrong in his first college start. He made three solo tackles, assisted on three others, intercepted a pass and harassed Cobb throughout a 24-17 victory.

The performance helped Nazel establish a presence on a line that features sophomore tackle Shaun Cody and redshirt sophomore end Kenechi Udeze, both of whom started last season.

"Nobody at Auburn knew who I was, and I think that worked to my advantage," Nazel said. "Now, I'm trying to let everyone know who I am."

Nazel gets his next opportunity Saturday, when No. 17 USC plays No. 18 Colorado (1-1) at Boulder, Colo.

Ed Orgeron, USC's defensive line coach, values Nazel's fiery temperament, increasing strength and speed. But Orgeron prods Nazel to take the next step.

"I want to see some consistency," Orgeron said. "He needs to get on his game every down."

Nazel agrees--which was not always the case after he arrived from Skyline High in 1999.

Recruited as a linebacker, Nazel was switched to defensive end during his redshirt season. In 2000, he played in five games but did not make a tackle.

Last season, Nazel backed up senior Lonnie Ford and Udeze. He played in all 12 games, made 15 tackles and intercepted a pass against Arizona.

"I've always been emotional and outspoken, but there have been times when it hasn't necessarily been directed in the right direction," Nazel said. "I was being a bad seed, rebelling against my coach when he was telling me things I didn't want to hear."

With Ford gone this season, Nazel sensed opportunity. Not only to play, but to change. Coach Pete Carroll, Orgeron and strength coach Chris Carlisle encouraged Nazel to express positive opinions and keep negative ones to himself.

"You can tell by looking at Omar that he has the talent," Carroll said. "He just needed to channel his emotions in a way that helps himself and the team."

Nazel sparked the Trojans against Auburn when he intercepted a second-quarter pass intended for running back Carnell Williams in the flat and returned it 15 yards to the Tiger 40-yard line.

The turnover launched an eight-play drive that ended with a three-yard touchdown run by Sultan McCullough and gave the Trojans a 14-7 lead.

"When you're a little kid, you're always saying, 'Hey, I'm going to get a pick and run it to the house and I'm going to do this dance when I get to the end zone,' " Nazel said. "When it happens, and they throw the ball right to you, it's like, 'My goodness, what's going on?' I'm just glad someone eventually scored for us."

Nazel anticipated congratulatory comments from Orgeron when the defensive linemen met to review tape.

"But it wasn't a pat-on-the-back kind of film session," Nazel said.

Instead, Orgeron pointed out Nazel's mistakes, including the facemask penalty that kept alive an Auburn drive that ended with a field goal to tie the score, 17-17.

A year ago, the criticism might have caused Nazel to lash out at a coach or teammates.

"Now, I realize the coaches are just trying to help me be the best player I can be," Nazel said. "I respect that, and it's making me work harder to live up to the expectations everyone is putting on me.

"I know it's only one game. There's still a lot of work to be done. But I'm getting there. I'm learning from my mistakes."

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