Assessing 2011's most intriguing players, in no particular order. Today: Junior USC defensive end Nick Perry.
• Typecasting. USC isn't exactly "Defensive End U," but the pipeline to the NFL was as steady there throughout the Pete Carroll as it was anywhere else: Before last weekend, at least one Trojan defensive end had come off the board in six of the previous seven drafts since 2004, and the only exception (in 2007) came after both starters, future picks Lawrence Jackson and Kyle Moore, decided to return to school. Perry, easily one of the most coveted pass rushers in the nation in 2008, was recruited out of Detroit to sustain that line, and after two years of shockingly diminishing returns from the defense as a whole, he hits his fourth year as the only veteran candidate who even looks like he has a chance.
Physically, Perry tests like a pro — coach Lane Kiffin said last September there are "probably on 10-15 people like him in the world" with the same combination of size, speed and vertical leap — and breaks the mold for USC defensive ends in that he's built more like a pass-rushing outside linebacker. As a recruit, he was listed at 235 pounds, and even with the 15 pounds he's reportedly added since then, he's probably more reminiscent of Brian Cushing, a nominal linebacker who sometimes served as a hybrid linebacker/end when the Trojans went to a 3-4 look and occasionally rushed from a three-point stance. Monte Kiffin's 4-3 scheme rarely calls for any hybrid roles (though sometimes it does), but as a rusher Perry's game is still beating much bigger tackles with an explosive first move off the ball.
• Best-Case. For a while in 2009, it looked like Perry was about to cement a quick reputation as the most explosive rushers in America before he'd even earned his first start. Coming off the bench on passing downs, he notched two sacks against San Jose State in his first game as a redshirt freshman, and by midseason was leading the Pac-10 with eight QB takedowns in six games. About half of those show up in this clip, all but the last one coming in the first half of the season:
The pace fell off in mid-October, but Perry still finished as the team leader in sacks, made every freshman All-America team and put visions of Dwight Freeney dancing in fans' heads.
His encore was derailed last year by a preseason ankle injury that dogged him throughout the season, but he started nine games and still wound up tying for the team lead in sacks while also forcing a pair of blindside fumbles on the rush and showing a knack for running down screens and outside runs in space.
• Worst-Case. To say Perry's pass rushing prowess "fell off" midway through 2009 is an understatement: He had more sacks in his first six games than he has in 19 games since, and wasn't among the top 15 players in the conference last year in sacks or tackles for loss. The biggest concern, though, remains Perry's ability to hold up as an every-down player against the run: At 250, he's still smaller than any defensive end who came off the board during the weekend's NFL Draft.
|More Coming Attractions|
|• MICHAEL DYER, Auburn|
|• KEENAN ALLEN, Cal|
|• MARCUS COKER, Iowa|
|• BRYCE BROWN, Kansas State|
|• TYRANN MATHIEU, LSU|
|• ETIENNE SABINO, Ohio State|
|• JAMARKUS McFARLAND, Oklahoma|
|• DEVIN TAYLOR, South Carolina|
|• DARRELL SCOTT, South Florida|
|• SHAYNE SKOV, Stanford|
|Listed alphabetically by school.|
As bad as the Trojans were in the secondary (and they were bad), they were also yielded 210 rushing yards per game in losses, more than twice what it allowed in wins, and that was with a first-team All-Pac-10 defensive tackle (Jurrell Casey) who just went in the third round of the draft clogging up the inside. Perry was only a part-time player in 2009 because of doubts about his size against the run, and the same doubts continue to follow him as a fourth-year junior.
• Fun Fact. Sacks are an elusive goal: Even over hundreds of snaps, the best pass rushers have a success rate (if you define "success" as sacking the quarterback) of maybe three percent. But Perry is very specific about his goal for 2011, telling reporters in the spring that he's aiming for "more than 15" sacks in the fall — not 15, but more than 15 — a number that would exceed his career total to date and leave him with both the single-season and career sack records at USC with a year of eligibility remaining. (Not that he would consider coming back in this scenario.) Considering only six players have exceeded 15 sacks in a single season over the last six years — and only one last year, Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers with 15.5 — it would almost certainly lead the nation.
• What to expect in the fall. Fifteen sacks is on the (very) extreme end of the curve, but if he's healthy over an entire season — which he has not been for either of the last two — Perry is obviously talented enough to crack double digits and emerge as the kind of persistent, disruptive force in opposing backfields that would land him on the postseason awards teams. More realistically, though, his chances at the next level — and USC's chances of even remotely resembling an old-school, Pete Carroll-era outfit defensively — will have a lot to do with his ability to shed blocks and get ball carriers at the point of attack, where the jury remains very much out.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.