With John Houston in the mix, USC believes it has more speed at linebacker
LOS ANGELES — Late in practice Thursday, USC linebacker John Houston lurched toward the line of scrimmage.
USC’s first-team offense was positioned shy of the red zone against its first-team defense. Upon the snap, Houston continued forward on a blitz and looked to push past the center, Nico Falah, into the backfield. He never arrived, but as quarterback Sam Darnold lofted a pass downfield, Houston jumped to tip the ball with his right hand. It lost steam and fluttered over the middle portion of the field, before cornerback Ajene Harris dove to nearly pick it off.
Houston has remained disruptive.
“He brings a different side to the defense we didn’t have last year,” junior linebacker Cameron Smith said. “He’s real long and rangy and flies around.”
Throughout training camp, USC’s players and coaches have enthused about Houston, the redshirt sophomore who is on track to start as the weak-side linebacker this season.
They have praised a variety of things about him.
Start with his wingspan, a reason why the 6-foot-3 Houston was able to tip the pass from Darnold on Thursday in the 11-on-11 portion of practice.
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast remarked this week that Houston reminded him of Karlos Dansby, a 6-4 NFL linebacker he coached for five seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. Both linebackers, he said, helped their respective defenses with their length. They can often get a hand in a passing lane.
Others, including Coach Clay Helton, pointed to Houston’s athleticism. Houston can cover receivers, he said, an increasingly important skill with the proliferation of spread offenses in the Pac-12 that often line up at least three or four wide receivers. He will often need to cover a slot receiver.
“That athleticism is important,” Helton said.
Speed, of course, helps too with simply moving across the field.
“I bring a little bit more speed, where I can get to the perimeter, make sure I’m there for the tackle, sideline to sideline,” Houston said. “I like to get to the ball.”
Houston has emerged as one of the probable starters after linebacker Michael Hutchings graduated. Hutchings, whose 66 tackles in 2016 were third-most on the team, was the strong-side linebacker – or “Mike” linebacker – last season. Smith moved over from weak-side linebacker, filling Hutchings’ spot. Then, Houston slid in for Smith.
“We work really well together because we’re not out there competing to call the defense or anything,” Smith said. “We know our roles and our assignments and what we’re asked to do.”
It will be the first time Houston has shouldered a significant role for the Trojans. He was limited in his first two seasons on campus because of back injuries, redshirting as a freshman in 2015.
Smith has also recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament that sidelined him for the rest of his freshman season in 2015, appearing more agile in pass coverage, his left knee no longer draped with a bulky brace.
Helton told Smith this week that he was in “the best shape since he’s been here.”
“If you look at him right now,” Helton said, “he’s holding a 245-pound frame, but he is cut from top to bottom.”
Pendergast thought Smith is more flexible too, something he stressed this offseason.
Both Smith and Houston should be quick enough to be around the ball.
“The athleticism at that inside linebacker spot,” Helton said, “is shining.”
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