Going into the season, it looked as though the Trojans would have two senior defensive ends and need to replace them in 2013 by way of recruiting, hence the rationale for having five committed defensive linemen.
But with Devon Kennard set to redshirt and return as a fifth-year senior opposite of then-senior Morgan Breslin(right), the Trojans will return five returning starters on the line, making the committed linemen in the Class of 2013 walk right into what could be USC’s deepest unit.
The five committed players consist of two tackles in Kenny Bigelow and Eddie Vanderdoes, and three ends including Jason Hatcher, Kylie Fitts and Torrodney Prevot.
Bigelow’s senior season has been slowed down due to political battles at Eastern Christian Academy, while Fitts has had a wrist injury cost him the remainder of his football career at Redlands East Valley. But despite the trials and tribulations of the commits, high school could be the least of the worries due to the circumstances at USC with the current defensive linemen.
Through seven games, the line has gone from the team’s biggest preseason question mark to perhaps the greatest strength. USC is tied with Arizona State for the conference lead in sacks and are giving up just 3.2 yards per carry, down from 3.69 in 2011 and 4.39 in 2010.
The performance has been built on the shoulders of emerging players and first-time starters, as Morgan Breslin, Leonard Williams and Antwaun Walker have far surpassed preseason expectations.
With Breslin, the Trojans didn’t know what exactly to expect. He was an All-American a year ago at the junior college level, but with big shoes to fill after Kennard went down, the prospects of having him out-perform Kennard’s standard seemed bleak. Yet here he is, 14th in the nation in tackles for loss with 12, and third in the conference with seven sacks despite being shut out against Colorado this past Saturday.
Breslin has not only allowed the loss of Kennard to be negligible, he’s prevented the minor injuries of J.R. Tavai from becoming an issue despite a lack of experienced depth.
Inside at tackle, freshmen Antwaun Woods and Leonard Williams have played out of their minds, while George Uko has been solid when he’s not committing personal foul penalties. Woods, who redshirted in 2011, has excelled at the nose tackle position and looks awfully similar to a young Sedrick Ellis, plus a couple of cheeseburgers. At the three technique, Uko came into the season with some experience –he spelled Christian Tupou on third downs last season– and he’s lived up to the hype as the fifth best tackle in his NFL Draft class.
Other than planting his knuckles on the facemask of a Colorado player, Leonard Williams has been a major player for the Trojans since he was moved from defensive end to tackle in fall camp. He’s second in the nation to TCU’s Devonte Fields in sacks by a freshman with 5.5, and he’s looked every bit as experienced as rest of the line, including senior Wes Horton.
The emergence of Williams could be the most impactful when it comes to recruiting since committed players like Kenny Bigelow and Eddie Vanderdoes will be most likely be tackles in college. With Williams and Woods established as mainstays, the pair of 2013 commits could step on campus with two sophomore tackles not only ahead of them on the depth chart, with three years of eligibility in hand.
Considering that the Trojans are still in pursuit of Montravius Adams, the question can be raised as to how much is too much, especially with a reduction of scholarships.
Should the Trojans land Adams, they would head into 2013 with three returning tackles with starting experience, two inexperienced redshirt sophomore reserves in Christian Heyward and Cody Temple, and the top three freshman defensive tackle prospects in the nation.
Even without Adams, the Trojans are projected to have 16 defensive linemen on scholarship in 2013, which more than 21 percent of the allotted 75, and up from 16 percent in 2012.
Needless to say, that’s quite the full house.
Plus, it raises the question as to whether or not it would be a possibility that the Trojans could pull the scholarship of a committed defensive lineman, especially if they find a way to land Adams.
USC is already overbooked with 18 commits due to the addition of Silas Redd from Penn State, making a pulled scholarship one possible alternative for treating the issue of overcrowding.
If scholarship restrictions weren’t levied on the Trojans, redshirts would be a probable work around, but with the defensive line, it’s not exactly a fix given the current youth of Williams, Woods and Uko.
After defensive end however, redshirting could become a very practical option for the Trojans, considering that Kennard and Breslin will be seniors in 2013.
With J.R. Tavai and Greg Townsend Jr., not to mention the injured DeVante Wilson, unless they force the hand of the coaching staff, pushing back the eligibility of Hatcher, Fitts and/or Prevot would not only buy time, but force some structuring of the 2013 depth chart.
Either way, it’s a good problem to have for USC’s defensive line as long as it doesn’t handcuff the Trojans in other units, namely the offensive line.