At the end of 2013 when it seemed like the NFL was having a buy-one-get-two-free sale on early entrants from USC, the Trojans received a huge boost from veteran linebacker Hayes Pullard when he announced he would pass on a trip to the pros in favor of another year in Los Angeles.
With Pullard’s return, the Trojan linebacking corp enters the 2014 season as one of USC’s strongest units top to bottom.
Though Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 system technically renames returning star J.R. Tavai as a rush end instead of outside linebacker, the linebackers still return all starters bar outside rusher Devon Kennard.
Sophomores Quinton Powell and Scott Felix will see an increased role with the season-ending injury to Jabari Ruffin, while redshirt junior Anthony Sarao and senior Lamar Dawson will have to settle once and for all which can maintain the starters job at will linebacker for the entire season.
Then there’s the wildcard — Su’a Cravens — whose flexibility could find him filling in where needed in this unit.
What happened last year:
Pullard captained and anchored the defense in 2013, leading the team with 94 tackles. His exceptional play earned him a place on Phil Steele’s All-Pac-12 first team and the conference All-Pac-12 second team.
The USC defense thrived under Ed Orgeron and a major part of that was Pullard’s role as field general.
On the right, Dawson seemed to have settled into place as the will linebacker. Starting the first seven games, Dawson logged 35 tackles. Unfortunately, he went down with a knee injury in practice and missed the remainder of the season.
In his place, Sarao answered the call and started the seven remaining games in 2013. Most notably, he led the Trojans in tackles during November’s upset of #5 Stanford and forced a fumble in that key defensive performance.
Sarao finished the season with 44 total tackles.
Over on the left, Devon Kennard thrived as a pass-rush specialist, topping the team’s sack chart with nine.
In relief of the injured Morgan Breslin, J.R. Tavai made a name for himself on the outside as well, while Jabari Ruffin showed flashes throughout the season.
What’s gone on in camp:
The biggest storyline coming out of Fall camp is the loss of projected starter Jabari Ruffin. All-but-penned in at the strongside position, Ruffin’s absence will impact the entire landscape of the unit.
First and foremost, Powell will get a chance to step up as a straight up replacement, but there are concerns about his size against bigger opponents.
Freshman Uchenna Nwosu can expect to see more time on the field this year as a result as well.
At the same time, Scott Felix, who figures in as Tavai’s back up at the rush end position has been given more of a role in practice as a hybrid linebacker since Ruffin’s injury.
Then there’s Cravens. After his star-turn as a freshman safety in 2013, his athleticism and versatility have made him the perfect option to fill in as the strongside linebacker in nickel packages. Though the coaches still expect to use Cravens in his more traditional role, indications are that he will fill whatever role the coaches ask him to fill — including linebacker.
Meanwhile, Dawson remains limited by his knee injury, leaving the door open for Sarao at WILL.
What to expect:
Pullard is as solid as a rock, so unless something catastrophic happens, he will likely lead the Trojans in tackles and garner plenty of award attention by season’s end.
Both Tavai and Felix will feature in the pass rush, but their duties could extend to the strongside as Wilcox sorts out life without Ruffin. Similarly, Cravens role will need to be ironed out.
The player prefers his role as a safety, but has insisted he will do whatever the team needs. If Wilcox can get similar play out of Cravens as he got out of Shaq Thompson at Washington it might be worth the experiment.
Powell was used mostly in reserve as a freshman in 2013 but he stood out when given the opportunity against Cal when he logged seven tackles. His progression will be key for the Trojans in 2014.
Sarao has the opportunity to lock down the starting position on the weakside but Dawson will certainly be looking to make the decision hard on the coaching staff once he is one hundred percent. Still, with both players putting in capable performances as starters in 2013, the Trojans should feel comfortable with whoever takes the reins.
The most gapping hole to fill in terms of production for the coming season is sacks. Without Breslin or Kennard, Tavai returns as USC’s top producer of sacks in the linebacker/rush end position, but considering Tavai’s role as replacement for Breslin in the first place there is space to fill. Dawson comes in as USC’s next top producer in that position though he tallied just 1.5 sacks in his appearances last year.
While the bulk of the pass rushing responsibility will fall to the rush ends and defensive linemen, contributions from Felix, Powell, Sarao and Dawson will go a long way.
Who will break out:
Felix has spent the bulk of Fall camp running with the twos but he has stood out in the latter stages with his tenacity and energy.
He came to USC as a highly touted recruit but his progress up the ranks has been slowed by a series of injuries. Now healthy, and sporting a new last name, Felix could emerge in much the same way Tavai burst onto the scene in 2013.
Ruffin’s injury certainly will allow him to see more playing time, while his versatility will ensure a role even as the defense shifts and changes to take on the variety of opponent the Pac-12 can throw at a team.