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USC defensive line in a rush to greatness behind Jethro Franklin

The Trojans lead the nation in sacks, and the defensive linemen credit their position coach Franklin, whose intensity and everyone-plays philosophy have worked wonders.

October 24, 2009|Gary Klein

Position-group meetings the night before USC games are typically brief, coaches quietly offering a few reminders for players to sleep on.

However, nothing about defensive line coach Jethro Franklin is drowse-inducing.

"Jethro is so loud, you can always hear their meeting," linebacker Chris Galippo said, laughing. "Before the Notre Dame game he was telling them, 'Every one of you guys is going to play! So get your minds right!' "

Franklin wasn't fibbing.

USC deployed 10 defensive linemen in its victory over the Fighting Irish, depth that enabled the Trojans to bring fresh pressure that resulted in five sacks.

USC enters today's game against Oregon State ranked first nationally in sacks and second in tackles for losses.

"In terms of production," Coach Pete Carroll said, "I'm surprised we're this far out there numbers-wise."

Trojans defensive linemen are not.

To a man, they credit Franklin, who is in his second tour of duty at USC.

In a program that preaches competition for playing time, the defensive line is the one position group that consistently rewards weekday effort on Saturday.

"Jethro's whole philosophy is to get as many guys on the field as possible," said Wes Horton, a redshirt freshman who recorded his first sack last week.

Franklin, 44, was a defensive lineman at Fresno State and then briefly in the NFL before starting a coaching career that has included stints with the Green Bay Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Houston Texans.

A member of USC's 2005 staff, Franklin returned this season after two years with Houston and one with Tampa Bay. He replaced Nick Holt, who left to become defensive coordinator at Washington.

Franklin's background has helped him connect with defensive linemen in a way that Holt, who played linebacker and previously coached that position for the Trojans, could not.

"D-Line coach or linebackers coach?" end Everson Griffen said. "I don't have to say no more than that."

Griffen, perhaps more than any other defensive lineman, has thrived under Franklin.

Last season, after the Trojans lost at Oregon State, Griffen dropped off the first team in favor of Clay Matthews, who went on to become a first-round NFL draft pick.

Now, it's the 6-foot-3, 280-pound Griffen who is playing like a first-round pick.

The junior is tied for the team lead with seven sacks and has worked to establish himself as the leader of a group that includes several contributing freshmen and redshirt freshmen.

"I'm just trying to be that guy that gets them pumped up and gets them ready to go when they get out there and get their chance," Griffen said.

It hasn't always been smooth.

Franklin has engaged Griffen in several post-practice powwows since training camp. The subject: focus and avoiding mental lapses.

For example, the Trojans were penalized against Notre Dame when Griffen turned to the crowd and flexed his biceps after sacking quarterback Jimmy Clausen.

"I got excited and let my emotions get to me," he said.

Griffen's emotional play has mostly inspired teammates who want to match or exceed his production.

Pass-rush specialist Nick Perry, a redshirt freshman, does not start but has seven sacks for a team averaging 4.3 a game.

"It's definitely a competition," said Perry, who practiced last season at linebacker and along the line before Franklin arrived and told him to concentrate solely on playing end.

Seven other defensive linemen, among them freshman end Devon Kennard and sophomore end Malik Jackson, have sacks or tackles for losses.

The Trojans also have been stout against the run, giving up only 68 yards rushing per game.

Not bad for a position group regarded as thin and a question mark before the season.

"They determine who plays," Franklin said of his players. "Even when they're down there on [the scout] team, I tell them, 'You're going against the best offensive line every day.'

"When I hear good things about what you're doing there then I'm going to say, 'Hey, let's get you ready mentally.' "

The philosophy has enabled the defensive linemen to stay motivated and to flourish.

"What he keeps telling us is there's no reason for people to be out there playing tired when we've got so many people on the bench who can play and are just starving to get a rep," senior defensive tackle Averell Spicer said.

Still, sophomore tackle Jurrell Casey played enough against Notre Dame to be the Pacific 10 Conference defensive player of the week after making 10 tackles.

Casey credits Franklin for individual and group success, citing harmony in the defensive line's meeting room as evidence of a philosophy that works.

"We can be serious but also joke around because everyone gets a chance to play and everyone is in a good mood when they come in on Monday," Casey said.

If that's to be the case next week, USC must stop an Oregon State offense that features running back Jacquizz Rodgers. The sophomore rushed for 186 yards and two touchdowns last season in the Beavers' upset victory over the then-No. 1 Trojans.

"It's all about stopping that guy," Franklin said. "We stop the running game, then we'll have an opportunity to rush the passer."

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gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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