Monte Kiffin's USC defense gave up 400 yards a game in 2010 -- 84th among… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )
Monte Kiffin heard the criticism.
USC's defense struggled from the opening game at Hawaii last season. The Trojans occasionally showed flashes of dominance but mostly played well below previous standards.
And the unit was especially bad late in several games.
So Kiffin, the assistant head coach for defense, made adjustments during spring workouts. And he has continued the trend, keeping things simple through three days of training camp.
"We slowed down the installation," he said Saturday. "We've cut back some. And the players are showing more awareness in the second year in the system."
How that translates when the Trojans open the season Sept. 3 against Minnesota remains to be seen.
USC, with several first-year starters on the line, at linebacker and in the secondary, gave up 400 yards a game in 2010 — 84th among 120 major college teams.
The upside, if there is one, is that players such as safety T.J. McDonald, cornerback Nickell Robey and others now have a full season of experience as starters.
"We're getting better," Kiffin said. "How good we are I don't know for sure. We have a long ways to go."
Saturday, the Trojans' first day in shoulder pads, the defense got the best of the offense, intercepting five passes in various drills. Quarterback Matt Barkley had three passes picked off.
"It's a concern," Coach Lane Kiffin said of Barkley's interceptions. "We've got to get back to basics and making sure we're not doing too much."
Lane Kiffin added that even though Barkley is going into his third season as the starter, "We still have to make sure we have 'A' down before we get to 'B' and 'C.'"
USC is counting on senior defensive tackle Christian Tupou to help fill the void left by Jurrell Casey's departure to the NFL.
But Tupou, who sat out last season after undergoing knee surgery, spent the second half of practice on the sideline with an ice pack on his left knee. He anticipated that he would be slowed — "I can't super-motor it all the time like I used to; I've got to just tempo it," he said — and would not predict what his return to the lineup could provide the Trojans.
"I really don't know if I can really do it," he said. "I've got to get through fall camp to see where I stand. . . . I still have to put my legs to the test."
Cornerback Torin Harris was examined for a possible concussion. . . . Lane Kiffin praised offensive lineman Kevin Graf, who appears on track to start at right tackle. The 6-foot-6 third-year sophomore did not participate in spring practice while recovering from shoulder surgery. He has decreased his body fat and appears more nimble. Kiffin also said that redshirt freshman defensive lineman George Uko and freshman running back Amir Carlisle have impressed.