USC Coach Lane Kiffin said Wednesday that he would be "shocked" if the Trojans do not play extremely well on defense in their home opener Saturday night against Virginia.
Of course, there's plenty of room for improvement after USC shockingly surrendered a whopping 588 yards and 36 points in its season-opening victory over Hawaii.
Middle linebacker Devon Kennard also anticipates a better performance, individually and collectively.
After facing Hawaii's pistol scheme in his first start at the position, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound sophomore is looking forward to plugging gaps against Virginia's pro-style offense. The Cavaliers feature 6-3, 255-pound running back Keith Payne.
"Now, that's exciting," Kennard said, eyes brightening.
Kennard did not get many opportunities to make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage at Hawaii, where he was forced to drop into deep coverage. He was penalized for pass interference on one play and just missed tipping away a pass on another.
Kennard said he graded out well overall in the opener, but he has worked this week to strengthen his pass-coverage technique.
"I was in perfect position, so it's not a huge, taxing change I needed to make," he said.
USC's defense also could be strengthened by the return of end Nick Perry, who appears on track to play after sitting out the opener because of a high ankle sprain.
"I'll be back," said Perry, who had eight sacks last season.
Kiffin certainly hopes so. The usually reserved coach said the 6-3, 250-pound Perry tests as a top-15 NFL draft pick.
"There's probably only about 10, 15 people like him in the world that have his ability," Kiffin said. "Now, whether he can put it together or not…. But you're talking about a guy who jumps 34 inches, that plays defensive end — a guy who, if you took his 10-yard and 20-yard dash, it matches our [defensive backs]."
The Trojans also might be bolstered by the return of T.J. Bryant, who took multiple reps at cornerback and the nickel spot because freshman Nickell Robey was limited.
Preparing for Dowling
The Trojans expect Virginia cornerback Ras-I Dowling to play Saturday after sitting out the Cavaliers' victory over Richmond because of a hamstring injury.
Dowling, 6-2 and 200 pounds, is regarded as a top pro prospect and would provide a good test for USC receiver Ronald Johnson, who caught three touchdown passes against Hawaii.
"I would think this would be a game he would be excited about, especially to match up with Ronald," Kiffin said.
Quarterback Matt Barkley turned 20 on Wednesday. Unlike former coach Pete Carroll, who routinely acknowledged those kinds of milestones, Kiffin ignored it. "We need to win some games first," he said. "So we'll worry about birthdays later."