Written by Sarah Bergstrom, USC blog contributor
When asked how great it felt to finally return to the field last weekend, Devon Kennard simply grinned. His contagious smile widened as he described returning to the huddle with his brothers, staring down a quarterback across the line of scrimmage, and the feeling of being back where he belonged. D.K. wasn't the only one smiling last Thursday in Hawaii. Teammates, coaches and Trojan fans across the country watched with content as the USC defense benefited from Kennard's return. At 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, Kennard has a big presence. But it's his presence as a leader and as a teammate even more than his physical prowess on the field that make him an irreplaceable asset to the USC football team.
Last year, Kennard was forced to redshirt due to a torn pectoral muscle. He returns in 2013 as a team captain, a leader both on and off the field, ready to leave a Trojan legacy of which he can be proud. While being sidelined was never in his plans, Kennard's year away from the sport he loves gave him a perspective he may not have found any other way.
"Mentally I learned a lot about the game," said Kennard. "I learned how privileged I am to play this game and how blessed I am to be out here every day. I try to bring that excitement and that perspective every time I'm playing."
First-year defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said at the conclusion of fall camp that if anyone stood out on the defense it was Kennard. In the season opener, he stood out again, his presence making a difference from the first snap.
USC is coming off of a 30-13 victory over Hawaii last Thursday thanks to a lively and consistent performance from the defense. Kennard had three tackles including two tackles for a loss and one sack, two pass breakups, and helped put enough pressure on the quarterback to assist in forcing four interceptions. The stellar performance from the defense set up every scoring drive for the Trojans, and even a touchdown of their own after a Josh Shaw pick-six.
"It was really exciting to be out there as a defense last week at Hawaii," said Kennard. "To actually play together and mesh, it was a lot of fun, and it looked like we were having fun. That's what football is all about. It's a privilege to play with my teammates and we are going to try to bring that same energy this week."
Junior safety Dion Bailey says the impact of his return this fall was felt immediately. "He's really an animal but he's a humble guy," Bailey said. "He doesn't drink his own Kool-Aid. He just shows up to work every day. He's here before everybody and he leaves after everybody because that's just the type of guy D.K. is. That's definitely the type of guy I want leading our defense."Kennard has played a versatile role for the USC defense in his four years as a Trojan, switching from defensive end to middle and outside linebacker, before settling into his unique position this season playing a hybrid role combining the defensive end and outside linebacker positions.
Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron says in this new scheme he's finally found his sweet spot. "He knows the offense, he knows the schemes, he knows the defense, and he's really mature," said Orgeron. "I think it's a blessing in disguise that he couldn't play last year because this is his true position."
On Tuesday, Kennard was named the Lott IMPACT Player of the Week after his defensive dominance at Hawaii. The senior was named a preseason nominee for the Lott Trophy which recognizes the defensive player with the most character and best athletic performance throughout the season. If there is anyone deserving of an award that honors both character and on-field performance, Bailey says it should be Kennard.
"He's the heart and soul of the defense. Everyone looks to Devon for leadership and to see the work we need to put in if we want to get to his level," said Bailey.