USC football’s defensive line could be the strongest, yet most in peril position group on the team. While boasting what could be the best defensive player in the country in defensive end Leonard Williams, low numbers on the line’s interior could wind up being the Trojans’ Achilles heel.
Gone is the Clancy Pendergast 5-2 defensive scheme, and new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox brings in a hybrid 3-4 base that is vaguely similar to the elephant package that USC developed towards the end of the Pete Carroll era, while being as flexible as last year.
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Three down linemen, an a 4-3 spoof with a stand up defensive end called a “rush end” that is technically a linebacker in the scheme.
Similar concepts, slightly different personnel shifts.
The result? A mallable multiple defense that should allow the USC defense to schematically defend the wide array of offenses present in the Pac-12, from the air raid, to the Oregon blur, the Rich Rod spread and the David Shaw power attack.
Here’s a look at the down linemen.
What happened last year:
The Trojans used the 5-2 scheme to perfection last year. OK, well maybe not, if you watched the Arizona State or UCLA game. But for the most part, USC’s defensive line was stout in the 5-2, with Leonard Williams(left) and George Uko being on the ends, and Antwaun Woods being in the middle at the nose guard position.
Jul 23, 2014; Hollywood, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans defensive end Leonard Williams poses for a photo during the Pac-12 Media Day at the Studios at Paramount. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY SportsFormer 4-3 crashing defensive ends Morgan Breslin, Devon Kennard and J.R. Tavai were re-programmed as stand-up hybrid linebackers, standing on the edge.
The look allowed the Trojans to get some much needed width against the run, where USC ranked 14th nationally and second in the Pac-12, giving up 120 yards per game.
Those numbers were skewed however, as offenses attempted a pass on 54.7 percent of their plays, up from 44.9 percent in 2012. Naturally, fewer runs meant fewer yards, making yardage-based totals appear more impressive.
USC’s 3.95 yards per carry against was tied with UCLA for 46th nationally.
Where the Trojans’ front seven excelled, was with a tenacious pass rush. USC had 34 sacks and 91 tackles for loss. That served as a major boost to an inexperienced secondary, by pressuring quarterbacks and forcing long-yardage passing situations with low percentage conversions.
What’s gone on in camp:
In one word: injuries.
Williams is USC’s most important player outside of quarterback Cody Kessler, but has been limited in camp with shoulder soreness after missing all of spring recovering from offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum.
Then there’s the loss of nose tackle Kenny Bigelow with an ACL tear, creating a big void in the rotation along the line.
Furthermore, the two remaining scholarship nose tackles, Woods and Cody Temple, have both missed time with an elbow injury and a concussion, respectively.
Both may return to the field as return as early as this week, but depth is a major concern with the opener against Fresno State coming quicker by the day.
Texas Tech transfer Delvon Simmons has been seeing some time at nose tackle with everyone out, and he along with highly-touted junior college transfer Claude Pelon could wind up wearing many hats on the Trojans’ defensive line.
Simmons, a five-star defensive end coming out of high school, entered camp listed as the Trojans’ starting defensive tackle with Pelon behind him.
What to expect:
You cannot stress the word ‘if’ more here. So here it goes. IF the USC defensive line stays healthy, they should be one of the best in the country.
There’s a potential No. 1 overall pick in Williams, a five-star phenom in Simmons and a pair of dynamic and sizable interior tackles in Woods and Pelon.
What’s not to like there? It’s simple.
The drop off to Temple, defensive end Greg Townsend and walk-on tackle Joey Augello is steep.
Both Townsend and Temple have limited experience and can be serviceable, but a history injuries and some ineffectiveness cast a bit of doubt, fair or not.
The Trojans managed to play with just three down linemen against Stanford last season, and won. But over-playing the big guns takes a toll physically and praises for being an iron man fall on deaf ears if it results in being worn down, ineffective and more susceptible to injury.
Apr 13, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans defensive tackle Antwaun Woods (99) during the spring game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Look for Wilcox and Wilson to try and get plenty of turns in the rotation early to keep players fresh and thicken the skin of the inexperienced.
With Williams sore and Woods(right) having missed time in camp, the Trojans will need the rotation to succeed right off the bat.
Who will break out:
Claude Pelon. And quite frankly, with the low numbers on the defensive line, Pelon will have to be a breakout star if the Trojans expect to have an elite-level defensive line rotation.
The good thing is that he’s capable of being just that, and no one believes in him more than Wilcox.
Pelon was a strong Washington lean when Sarkisian and Wilcox were in Seattle, and promptly hopped aboard at USC when it became evident that the ship was sailing out of Montlake.
The 6-foot-5 big man will get plenty of playing time with Bigelow out, as he’s the most talented non-starting lineman.