2016 USC Football Spring Preview: Defensive Line

Dec 30, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; USC Trojans defensive tackle Noah Jefferson (91) and defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow Jr. (95) work against each other before the game against the Wisconsin Badgers in the 2015 Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 30, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; USC Trojans defensive tackle Noah Jefferson (91) and defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow Jr. (95) work against each other before the game against the Wisconsin Badgers in the 2015 Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports /

Sorting out the new-look defensive line will be the top priority for USC football as spring camp progresses in 2016 with all three starting positions up for grabs.

With USC football’s 2016 spring camp due to begin in just two weeks, it’s time to look forward to preparations for the new season.

The Trojan defensive line has dealt with low roster numbers over the last few years and now they’ll need to replace a wealth of experience up front as all three starters from 2015 are no longer on the roster.

USC will also be breaking in a new defensive line coach in former Trojan All-American Kenechi Udeze, who was promoted from assistant strength and conditioning coach.

Defensive Line

Departing (5): Claude Pelon, Delvon Simmons, Cody Temple, Greg Townsend Jr., Antwaun WoodsReturning (9): Kenny Bigelow, Jacob Daniel, Malik Dorton, Rasheem Green, Don Hill, Noah Jefferson, Christian Rector, Kevin Scott, Jordan SimmonsEarly Enrollees (1): Oluwole BetikuIncoming Freshmen (3): Joshua Fatu (JC), Liam Jimmons, Connor Murphy

Five defensive linemen depart the program this year, including starters Delvon Simmons, Greg Townsend Jr. and Antwaun Woods. Claude Pelon was also a semi-regular member of the starting line up while Cody Temple was an active member of the rotation.

In all, USC loses 77 career starts among those five players. The Trojans can boast zero career starts among the nine players returning for the 2016.

That does not mean, however, that the Trojans lack for talent up front. Kenny Bigelow, Rasheem Green and early enrollee Oluwole Betiku were five-star recruits coming out of high school. Jacob Daniel and Noah Jefferson were four-star prospects, as was Jordan Simmons, though he was rated as an offensive lineman and has since switched over to defense. In the fall, Connor Murphy, another four-star recruit, will arrive as well.

Bigelow is a redshirt junior and holds the most experience on the defensive line in the program, though his impact has been greatly limited by injury. After redshirting in 2013, he tore ligaments in his knee prior during fall camp and missed the 2014 season. Finally back in the mix of things in 2015, Bigelow served as a rotational player pitching in three sacks while participating in all but one game.

Now the expectation is for the 6-foot-3, 290 pound lineman to take the next step towards living up to the hype of his high school billing. In Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 defense, he is likely to fill one of the defensive end positions.

Another five-star prospect, Green could also reasonably be expected to fill the position opposite Bigelow.

Green’s road to getting seeing the field in the cardinal and gold was also been complicated by injury. He participated in every game for the Trojans during his freshman campaign but was slowed in the lead up to the season as he continued to recover from an injury he sustained in high school.

As a sophomore, failure to secure a starting position would be a disappointment for Green considering his immense talent.

At nose tackle, USC has a pair of sophomores who are expected to battle for the top spot. Both Daniel and Jefferson were highly-touted members of the 2015 class. Though Daniel saw playing time in the Trojan’s first two games he went unused in the latter half of the season. Jefferson, on the other hand, appeared in all 14 games in 2015 and even earned a start in the Holiday Bowl as USC deployed a four-man front.

The newest five star in the group begins his freshman season early, but there remain questions about where Clancy Pendergast will deploy Betiku. In the 5-2, his 6-foot-5, 250 pound frame is more likely to be suited to one of the outside linebacker positions than the interior three.

Scott’s 6-foot-5, 315 pound stature certainly lends itself to one of the interior positions, but as a raw prospect coming out of high school and sitting out 2015 as a redshirt it remains to be seen whether his progression will see him burst onto the scene this spring.

Also in the mix for a potential break out spring are Don Hill, Christian Rector and Malik Dorton, who was converted from outside linebacker last spring.

Simmons, who was switched over from the crowded offensive line in 2015, has been dealing with injuries for most of his career. A healthy stretch could give him to opportunity to finally establish himself for his senior campaign.

Biggest Battle: Jacob Daniel vs. Noah Jefferson

Though every starting job up front is up for grabs, Daniel and Jefferson are the clearest rivals for a single position on the line. Based on last season’s production Jefferson likely has the edge, but Daniel should have enough ability to challenge.

More from Reign of Troy

Most to Gain: Kevin Scott

Even as the likes of Bigelow, Green, Jefferson and Daniel are being penciled in as potential starters, Scott could be the dark horse candidate to shine this spring. After a year of development, a break out camp would put him ahead of schedule but with the chance to establish himself when the defensive line depth chart is so wide open.

Most to Lose: Kenny Bigelow

Bigelow will be one of just three upperclassmen in the unit for 2016, but he is by far the most experienced at USC and much more highly-touted than either Simmons or junior college transfer Joshua Fatu. Injuries have slowed his progress but failure to assert himself as a junior would move him into bust territory.

More Spring Previews: