USC has 12 starters on its defense, according to defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron: two safeties, two corners, three linebackers, two defensive tackles and three defensive ends.
Yes, three starting defensive ends -- Wes Horton, Nick Perry and Devon Kennard -- for two spots. So it doesn't matter all that much which two technically earn the start each week, according to Orgeron, because it's just that: a technicality.
"How Coach O explains it is we have three starting ends," said Kennard, who didn't start the Minnesota opener and probably won't start Saturday's game against Utah either. "Last game they started Wes and Nick, but then the second series I was in at left end and the third series I was in at right. So I'm in two series and out one, same as the other guys, and we're all getting about the same snaps. And third-down situations or pass situations we're all on the field, so we're all getting plenty of snaps and we're all treated like starters.
"This week, I don't know if they're starting the game the same way or switching me into the lineup but we're all doing the same stuff regardless."
Minnesota ran exactly 60 plays last week against the Trojans, which would give Orgeron 120 snaps to shuffle between the three defensive ends for roughly 40 snaps per player, a standard number yet one still small enough to contribute to additional freshness late in games. But there are third downs, too, and the Gophers attempted 14 third-down conversions, meaning USC moved Horton in to tackle and had all three ends on the field for at least 10 separate snaps Saturday as well.
One crucial, overlooked decision that's making this all possible: Kennard's move back to end. Without Kennard there to supplant Perry and Horton, the USC defensive line would be a completely different story, a unit struggling to accumulate depth and struggling to give its members breathers. He's by far the most influential non-starter (again, a technicality, USC says) on this team.
"Devon's a heck of a player," said middle linebacker Chris Galippo, the quarterback of the defense and Kennard's former competitor. "And I think this team's best when we're rotating guys and guys are fresh. It's tough to go series in and series out and still, when it's third and eight, come out with your head on fire."
Kennard's value is twofold: his pass-rushing skills are among the best on the team, but he can also drop back in coverage and help out the Trojans against the pass-happy teams of the Pac-12. Because of his experience at linebacker in 2010, he's developed ball skills that few other college linemen possess, and that helps him with the various demands of his new position.
"Here's a defensive end that played a year at linebacker and he knows how to pass-drop, whereas these other D-ends, they're pass-rushers first," Galippo said of Kennard. "Here's a guy that can stand up, drop in the pass, we can spy him, we can do little things like that with himand he can still contribute to the rush and make plays in the run game."
Against Minnesota, the Kennard-boosted defensive line had what would undoubtedly have been considered one of its best performances in 2010, producing four sacks and a number of quarterback hurries. But, like every other aspect of the Trojans' opener that was deemed an overall positive, the linemen need to show they can produce again when facing a talented Utah team this week.
"Last week, we showed our D-line can pass rush," Kennard said. "But, really, we actually left some out there. I think we definitely impacted the game, but we gotta keep going.
"Four sacks, that was good -- but we can do better."