Trojans ready to test defense

LOS ANGELES -- A year ago, the USC Trojans' new coaches had a pretty good feeling about their defense heading into the opener at Hawaii. They no longer had such a good feeling by the time the team plane left Oahu.

"We were shocked in that game," coach Lane Kiffin said Tuesday. "I would have never thought we would have come into that game and allowed that many explosive plays."

By the fourth quarter, Trojans defenders were grabbing their knees and gasping for breath between whistles. A smaller team was running them into the ground. Hawaii was breaking off big chunks on virtually every play. In the end, USC held on for a 49-36 win, but Hawaii -- a better team than many people thought at the time -- exposed the defense for 588 yards, including 459 in the air.

USC's defense had trouble learning Monte Kiffin's NFL-oriented schemes and never caught up to expectations. The Trojans averaged 31 points, but gave up 27. The 400 yards per game opponents piled up were the most since records have been kept starting in 1955. A porous defense is the easiest explanation for the Trojans' overall mediocrity.

Sometimes, the offense made dramatic late plays to win games: witness the last-minute field goal to beat Arizona State. Sometimes, it didn't: witness Ronald Johnson's dropped touchdown pass against Notre Dame.

"Sometimes, it felt like you were playing catch-up," quarterback Matt Barkley said.

So, where does that leave the Trojans heading into Saturday's opener against Minnesota? Curious, as usual, confident, they say, but never quite certain.

Monte Kiffin, 71, spent 26 straight years coaching in the NFL. He's in his third season back in college football, where he started his epic coaching life. The head coach's dad still is not entirely comfortable with all things NCAA, but he's learned a few things by now. He scaled back his Tampa 2 system so that younger players, with limited practice time, can pick it up well enough to play at a sufficiently fast tempo.

The results, USC players say, have been evident all August. Of course, August results don't matter. The ones that count start getting added up Saturday at the Coliseum.

"They're just playing now. They're not thinking," Barkley said. "They're not worried about what calls to make or what checks. They're just lining up and coming downhill."

Safety T.J. McDonald, a captain, said, "The way we've been working, we better not lose a game."

The Tampa 2 helped the Buccaneers win Super Bowl XXXVII and reach the playoffs in seven of the 13 years Monte Kiffin was there. In his first year, the 1996 Bucs had the No. 22 rushing defense and the No. 8 scoring defense. In 1997, they had the No. 6 rushing defense and the No. 2 scoring defense. If USC's defense could move up from, say, No. 6 to No. 2 in the conference, the Trojans could improve by two games without the offense improving a bit. A 10-2 season -- under probation, without a bowl game to shoot for -- should be considered a success.

Of course, in the NFL, Kiffin was working with grown men and without limits to hours at the office. The NCAA limits coaches to 20 hours a week with players.

"They didn't have that 20-hour rule," Monte Kiffin said. "I love coaching ball and guys would hang out in the office watching tape all the time, non-stop. Here, they've got, what, tutors, class, plus study hall and all that stuff. You have to adjust."

That goes, too, for the players, who often seemed to be thinking about what they were supposed to do instead of doing it. Lane Kiffin elected to eliminate tackling in practice last year because of depth issues. The lack of physicality showed up in the games. The Trojans have been full-contact since the first few days of fall camp.

Seven defensive starters are back, but one of them -- lineman Armond Armstead -- hasn't been medically cleared. The line, with Christian Tupou back, should be good and might even be dominant. The Trojans have more depth at linebacker, which may have been the thinnest position in 2010. The secondary is suspect but has a couple of premium players in McDonald and cornerback Nickell Robey.

Those are the facts, open to interpretation. Now, we finally get to see somebody kick off with TV cameras rolling and it might not take long to see how much progress USC's defense has made in the past nine months. It didn't take long last year.

"Even though we feel better and we look better and we're bigger and stronger and faster and we look like we tackle better, until we prove it, it doesn't matter," Lane Kiffin said.

Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.