The key to any great defense is the defensive line. A defensive line that is able to control the line scrimmage by getting up field penetration, reestablishing the line of scrimmage on run plays and distributing the quarterback’s rhythm on pass plays, gives the defense the ability to be successful.
There is no doubt that the Trojans have a high powered offense but in order to live up to championship expectations, the defense will need to return to championship form. That starts with the defensive line. The defense struggled through the early part of the 2011 season but picked it up towards the latter part of the season and a lot of that had to do with improved defensive line play.
In all the defensive line gathered 18.5 sacks and 31 tackles for loss for the entire season and this will have to really improve in 2012. Nick Perry, who is now in Green Bay, provided 9.5 of those sacks and 13 of those tackles of loss. With Perry being gone the question becomes how do you replace his production and increase the production of the entire unit.
The starting front four going to fall camp are Devon Kennard, J.R. Tavai, George Uko, and Wes Horton. These four players combined for only 7.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. In the pass happy Pac-12 it is going to be very important to get after the passer. If Monte Kiffin is going to have to commit linebackers and defensive backs in blitzes in order to get pressure on the quarterback, things could get ugly. Bringing the extra man should be a change of pace to throw the offense off, not a necessity to dirty the quarterback’s uniform.
Horton and Kennard need to have huge years as pass rushers. The 6 sacks that they combined for last year need to be in the 16-20 range this year. Horton is the more natural pass rusher of the two and is solid against the run. There are times that he fails to get off of blocks in passing situation as he appears to be reading instead reacting. At 6’ 5” and 255 he is a great athlete with a great motor. His challenge will be staying engaged mentally and putting proper technique to use.
Kennard is a great athlete with a great motor but uses his hands poorly when pass rushing. After starting at middle linebacker in 2010 and moving back to defensive end in 2011, he struggled to generate much of a pass rush due to poor technique. It seems at times that he wanted to rely purely on his speed to get to the quarterback. Hopefully Coach O worked with him during the offseason to develop a go to pass rush move with a few counter moves off of that. He also needs to work on better pass rush angles and working on attacking the tackle’s shoulder instead of going down the middle of the man. Kennard might be better off playing an “elephant” position like Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing, and Kaluka Maiava did in years past.
Look for redshirt freshman Greg Townsend Jr. and junior college transfer Morgan Breslin to push both Kennard and Horton for playing time. Breslin, a transfer from Diablo Valley College, led California junior colleges in sacks and tackles for loss in each of the previous two seasons. He has a propensity for being disruptive but how well will that translate on the highest level of college football? On film he shows a great first step, an arsenal of pass rush techniques, and a great motor. All these things are necessary to be an outstanding pass rusher on any level.
Townsend Jr. comes from a great pedigree, his father was a four-time Pro Bowler for the Raiders, so hopefully he has soaked up some of his dad’s knowledge. Coming off a redshirt season, the hope is that he used that time to hone his craft and get into the weight room to improve his strength. He had a solid spring camp and provided a sack in the spring game.
The interior rotation will feature Uko, Tavi, and Antwaun Woods. It will be very important for these players to wreak havoc up the middle of the offense. They will be relied upon to collapsing the pocket in passing situation to prevent the quarterback from stepping up in the pocket and also getting penetration on running plays to screw up blocking assignments. It is also important that they keep the offensive line off of Lamar Dawson so he clean-up any junk.
Tavi is listed as the starting nose guard but is undersized for the position at 265. Expect to see the much bigger Woods to move into this spot either in fall camp or early in the season. Uko is listed as the starting 3 technique (the Warren Sapp position). This is a very important position in the Kiffin defense and we should see Uko defeat a lot of one on one blocking with his quickness and athleticism.
The success of the defense will be dependent on the success of the defensive line. I’m sure that Coach Orgeron will have this unit firing on all cylinders.