USC Football Preview 2013: Defensive Line


November 10, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans defensive end Leonard Williams (94) runs the ball after intercepting a pass against the Arizona State Sun Devils during the second half at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

If there is one thing about change, it is that it is constant.  The USC Trojan football team has gone through and will continue to go through a lot of change as they enter the 2013 season.  Change will be extremely evident on the defensive side of the ball, where they are going through a complete transformation. Not only are they abandoning the Tampa-2 defense made popular in the NFL by former Trojans’ defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, they are scraping the 4-3 defense altogether.  New defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has installed a 5-2, as he terms it, which is essentially a 3-4 scheme.

This change will bring the biggest challenge to the defensive line.  In a 4-3 scheme, defensive lines are expected to attack, penetrate, and get up field to disrupt the opposing offense.  The linemen themselves are typically smaller and quicker in build to allow them to achieve this goal.  Because they are typically smaller than the offensive lineman that they are lined-up across from, it is important for them to shade to one side of an offensive lineman to defeat blocks more easily and get to the ball.

In a 5-2 or 3-4 scheme, the defensive lineman are typically bigger.  Defensive ends would normally be a defensive tackle or what is known as a 3-technique in a 4-3 front.  This would put them in the 300-pound range, While nose tackles are expected to be huge road graders, in the 330-350 range.  The size is needed at all three of the defensive line positions because they most often align head-up on the offensive lineman and take on the block directly.  The head-up alignment is needed because they have a two-gap responsibility and as a result, they are not able to attack up the field.  Instead they are in a read-and-react mode which often times makes them block occupiers.

The change in scheme will move All-Pac-12 performer Morgan Breslin, out to a 2-point stance rush outside linebacker position, taking him out of the defensive line mix.  This will leave Freshman All-American Leonard Williams (6-5, 270) and George Uko (6-3, 275) to man the defensive end positions with Greg Townsend Jr. (6-3, 275) and J.R. Tavai (6-2, 270) fighting for playing time.

There are a few questions that immediately come to mind.  Can Williams, Uko, and the others change from attack mode to read-and-react?  Being undersized, can they hold up to the pounding they will receive aligning head-up and going down the middle of a man that at times might outweigh them by 50 pounds?  Can they play with pad level and leverage in order to hold the line of scrimmage?  These question will begin to be answered on August 29th in Honolulu.

Antwaun Woods (6-1, 315) is set to man the nose tackle position with junior Cody Temple (6-2, 300) and true freshman Kenny Bigelow (6-3, 300) pushing him for playing time.  This position is very important to the success of this scheme.  If a team doesn’t have a nose tackle worth his salt, it can’t be successful in this scheme.  Can these players make-up for what they lack in girth in technique and tenacity?

Typically this position is occupied by a mountain of man.  Someone like Vince Wilfork, Casey Hampton, or Ryan Pickett.  The defensive alignment leaves huge bubbles or running lanes over both offensive guard positions.  So someone is needed that is stout and able to clog or occupy the center and guards and allow for the two inside linebackers to play away from the garbage in the trenches.

These changes are sure to bring about some growing pains; there isn’t a lot of depth at these positions due to scholarship restrictions and this being the first year of the change.  The defensive line was one of the few bright spots for the Trojans last year.  Whether they can duplicate and expand on that success is something all Trojan fans will be watching very closely.