Written by Dave Dulberg, USC blog contributor
Thursday night's first fall practice at Howard Jones Field signaled the beginning of a new season with a flurry of incompleted passes, several fresh faces, number changes left and right and old faces in new places.
For one of those old faces, junior Devon Kennard, the switch back from linebacker to the more familiar defensive end position is a welcomed transition.
"I think you can just tell I am a lot more comfortable off the edge," Kennard (pictured far right) said after Thursday's practice. "I am a natural pass rusher, because I grew up playing the position."
In 2007, Kennard earned All-American honors as the West Coast's premier pass rusher, tallying an Arizona state-high 24 sacks and 111 tackles in only his junior season at Desert Vista HS (Phoenix, AZ). While he would begin his USC career as a backup defensive end for the Trojans in 2009 (34 tackles, one fumble forced and one fumble recovered), last year's changing of the guard and lack of depth pushed Kennard to starting middle linebacker.
His shift to middle linebacker had its ups and downs in 2010, as Kennard would eventually be replaced by then- junior Chris Galippo after just eight games. Although he would finish last season with 72 tackles and an interception, it was clear heading into 2011 the defensive line would be an area of concern without the team's top defensive lineman from a year ago, Jurrell Casey (who was drafted 77th overall by the Titans in April's draft).
On Thursday, Kennard finally was able to display the expertise at defensive end that made him a household name during his high school years in the Valley of the Sun. While he spent the majority of the night practicing with the second unit, both he and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin came away impressed with his opening act.
"For the first day back, we were very pleased," Monte Kiffin said regarding the coaching staff's evaluation of Kennard. "He's been there before, it's simply a matter of getting him more reps. He's worked really hard this offseason to get ready for this change."
"It felt really good out there and I think I did some good things on the field," said a pleased Kennard on his 2011 debut at defensive end. "There are still several things I can get better on, and ultimately I just want to be the best player I can be for this team."
Even though the presence, if healthy, of redshirt seniors Christian Tupou and Nick Perry will definitely bolster a USC pass rush that ranked tied for 46th in sacks (28) last season, Kennard's experience at two positions provides much-needed versatility.
"It's a lot like riding a bicycle in that you just need repetition and a chance to work on fundamentals," said Kennard. "I want to show the coaches everything I can do, so they can use me to our defense's advantage. It never hurts having knowledge at defensive end and linebacker. It means I can bring a lot to the table."
(Photo by Getty Images)