Griffen ready to leave his mark on Pac-10 QBs
The police came for Everson Griffen this spring, and USC coach Pete Carroll couldn't stop them from apprehending the talented sophomore defensive end. Not only were there many witnesses to what Griffen had done, but there also was film of his transgression.
Griffen just days before had "physically abused a freshman," the police said. To squelch any doubts or grumbles of protest, officers interrupted a team meeting and played the incriminating video.
Sure enough, there was Griffen -- on the football field running through a hapless block attempt from freshman offensive lineman Matt Meyer. Rumor has it that further evidence included a footprint on Meyer's forehead that matched Griffen's cleats.
April Fools! Baa-haa! Chortle. Carroll and Griffen were co-conspirators, along with the police, for this prank a month ago.
"Drat," harrumphed the 12 teams on USC's 2008 schedule after watching the prank play out on YouTube.
Those unsmiling squads likely won't be duped into assuming that USC's defense must undergo major rebuilding in 2008 because four Trojans defenders were selected on the first day of the NFL draft -- including three in the first round.
It's possible that another four Trojans will become first-round picks in the 2009 draft. Carroll, entering his eighth season, also hasn't been shy about announcing that the secondary might be the best he's had at USC. Meanwhile, linebacker Rey Maualuga's top competition for the Butkus Award given annually to the nation's best linebacker might be teammate Brian Cushing.
I don't know how to explain it, because it's the greatest feeling in the world. When you're coming off the edge and [the quarterback] doesn't see you -- it's like a free shot to heaven.
But make no mistake about the X factor. That's Griffen.
In a program in which spectacular athleticism is commonplace, Griffen stands out. He's powerfully built at 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds, but he runs like a tailback -- he's been clocked under 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
"He's one of those rare kids you find every once in a while who is really big and can really run," said defensive coordinator Nick Holt, who also supervises the defensive line. "His transition to major college football wasn't too hard."
Oh, there were a few bumps in the road, most notoriously when Griffen and the upperclassman whose job he threatened, then-junior Kyle Moore, got into a fight during a preseason practice. According to reports, Moore had been teasing Griffen because the freshman was complaining about his sore back.
"It wasn't anything big -- a big brother, little brother thing," said Griffen, who added that he and Moore reconciled and are now friends (notably, Moore is projected to line up at strong end, opposite Griffen, next season).
While the scuttlebutt was that Griffen displayed an overabundance of confidence when he first arrived and rubbed a number of teammates the wrong way, Holt doesn't buy that.
"Some of the kids felt threatened by him for playing time," he said. "So it was really competitive and, in the heat of the battle, fights break out sometimes. It was never anything out of the ordinary, but it was because kids don't want their positions taken by younger guys."
That insecurity apparently motivated Moore, considered a talented underachiever at that point, and made him a better player. Though Griffen became the first true freshman defensive lineman to start a season opener for USC since 1986, he almost entirely came off the bench behind Moore. He recorded 21 tackles and 5½ sacks -- 3½ of which came in a dominant performance on Nov. 3 against Oregon State.
And Griffen won't be gifted a starting job this year, either. That's not the way USC works.
Carroll and Holt brought back the "Elephant" -- a hybrid end/linebacker position -- and senior Clay Matthews asserted himself at the spot this spring. Toss in Gerald Washington behind Moore, and the present plan involves four ends playing extensively. In fact, Matthews (who is undersized at 240 pounds but is also fast and savvy) and Griffen could be on the field at the same time as outside rushers in passing situations.
Griffen isn't merely a pass-rushing specialist, though. The expectation is he'll be on the field the majority of the time.
"For a young kid, I was really happy the way he could play the run game last year," Holt said. "He's a smart football player, and he knows how to use his hands and can hold up against a tight end."
Still, everyone knows that hitting the quarterback is Griffen's prime directive. The Trojans' defense has been virtually impenetrable in recent years when it consistently created pressure with a four-man rush. When so many games come down to the final possessions of the fourth quarter, nothing beats pressure from the edge to quash a late drive.
So that explains why Griffen, who hails from Avondale, Ariz., needs little prodding to wax poetic about the joys of sacks.
"I don't know how to explain it, because it's the greatest feeling in the world," he said. "When you're coming off the edge and [the quarterback] doesn't see you -- it's like a free shot to heaven."
It's far from outrageous to predict that Griffen will be going to heaven 10-15 times next fall, which bodes well for his joining his Trojans predecessors as a first-round, multimillionaire in 2010, following his junior season.
"It's kind of hard not to think about the next level, but if you think too much ahead then you get sidetracked," he said. "You think about what you've got in front of you first and then work your way to the NFL."
For the quarterbacks in front of Griffen this fall, that's probably more arresting than funny.
Ted Miller is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ted at email@example.com.
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