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,”…