USC Football: Defensive Line Becoming Strength of New-Look Defense


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The Trojans’ spring game presented some strengths and weaknesses for the new-look defense, with the defensive line coming up large in stature and performance. The contest started to become a highly-followed game of seven-on-seven, after Lane Kiffin announced that the game would only feature light wrap up tackling to preserve the health of the much-depleted Trojans.

Obviously someone did not tell the defensive line about the nature of the contest, as they continued to power off the line of scrimmage, racing to all three quarterbacks throughout the game. The defensive line came to play, recording 12 sacks and forcing two fumbles on Saturday.

The front seven made impact plays on first and second down, led by junior-college transfer from a season ago, Morgan Breslin. The senior had an ultra quick first step in passing situations, racking in three sacks on the afternoon, a strong sign for the senior who is coming off an impressive 13-sack performance last season as an All-Pac-12 Second Team selection.

Rising-star Leonard Williams looked strong for most of the Spring, following his selection as the 2012 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. Williams recorded six tackles and one sack in the Spring Game, showcasing his new-found impact from the new confines of Defensive End on the corner.

The defensive line also has some big additions with freshman tackle Kenny Bigelow taking quality reps at the one-technique in the new five-two scheme. The five-star freshmen recruit is one of the young stars looking to make an immediate impact in Clancy Pendergast’s defense.

“[Kenny] really improved during the Spring, and over the last week, he played really well,” Kiffin said postgame.

Devon Kennard, Cody Temple and J.R Tavaii received the majority of the playing time in the final quarter. Kennard provides a combination of power and speed, returning from a torn pectoral muscle that cost him the entire season. Cody Temple recorded a sack in the contest, and did a great job of spying the quarterback from the defensive tackle position when they would attempt to scramble. Tavaii exhibits a tenacious motor that was slightly clipped, as he continues to work his way back after suffering a broken foot last season.

While Max Wittek, Max Browne and Cody Kessler were surveying the field for wide receivers,  the Trojans’ defensive line was penetrating with ease. The second half started to look like a sack fest, as the defensive line continued to penetrate, disrupting the rhythm of all three quarterbacks. Breslin and Williams may have gotten the biggest accolades but the penetration up the middle truly set up the recipe for success.

Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 scheme is based upon loading the line of scrimmage to better disguise who is rushing and who is going to pass protection. This split-second of hesitation by the offensive line allows the nose tackle and ends to gain an added step on the quarterback, that could not be attained in the previous system.

The pressure also forced two fumbles and a slew of quarterback scrambles that were gobbled up by the swarming defense. This type of disruption in the quick-timing rhythm will be crucial for the Trojans defense against spread attacks that are based on spacing and quick read-option plays.

The pure number of sacks from the spring game is always difficult to quantify moving forward, given the fact that contact is not allowed. Nevertheless, this unit has been playing like the bright spot for this defense that needs to dominate once Pac-12 play comes along.