USC Football 2016 Preview: Breaking Down the 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 /

If there’s one thing that needs to go right for USC football in 2016, it’s a high level of play from a young and inexperienced, yet talented defensive line.

The downside of having a defensive line full of seniors is the looming inexperience the following year. That’s where USC football sits after losing five players to graduation, along with the crucial season-ending injury of former five-star lineman Kenny Bigelow.

Not only is the unit devoid of a veteran returnee, but defensive line coach Chris Wilson is now barking out orders for the Philadelphia Eagles. The Trojans moved on to former All-American Kenechi Udeze, in what is his first full-time assistant job.

His task? Coach up an extremely talented yet raw line for USC, and have them ready in Week 1 for the vaunted Alabama Crimson Tide.

It’s a lot of pressure. But with a potential future star in Rasheem Green, and a return of the Clancy Pendergast 5-2 base defense, USC still has upside up front.

Who’s back: Jacob Daniel (SO), Malik Dorton (SO), Rasheem Green (SO), Noah Jefferson (SO), Christian Rector (RS-FR), Kevin Scott (RS-FR)

Who’s gone: Claude Pelon, Delvon Simmons, Cody Temple, Greg Townsend Jr., Antwaun Woods

Who’s new: Josh Fatu (JR), Liam Jimmons, Connor Murphy, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu (SR)

They were solid but…

Despite catching a significant amount of flack during the season, USC’s 2015 interior defensive line produced some solid numbers.

The veteran front stood out in rush defense as the Trojans ranked fourth in the Pac-12 allowing 3.97 yards per rush.

They also conceded just 17 rushing touchdowns, which was tied for fifth in the conference.

SEE MORE: Who Will Step In If Defensive Line Depth Gets Bleak?

There were bright moments as well. Delvon Simmons had two sacks against Utah. Antwaun Woods did the same against Arizona.

Both were exceptional versus Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl, bursting into the backfield with three tackles for loss and 19 tackles between them.

Green scoop and scored against UCLA, which in a lot of ways proved to be the most pivotal play of the season. It clinched the Pac-12 South crown for the Trojans.

…Pretty inconsistent

The trouble for USC’s defensive line in 2015 was a complete lack of consistency.

Performances like the front had against Wisconsin were missing against Stanford — both times.

Though USC produced a respectable 37 sacks on the year, pressure was not a dependable feature of the Trojan defense.

Quarterbacks, like the Cardinal’s Kevin Hogan, were allowed entirely too much time to sit back and pick the secondary apart.

The interior defensive line wasn’t the greatest weakness on USC’s team, but it was far from a strength.

Without Leonard Williams to provide a spark, the Trojans fielded a line of supporting cast members. The outcome was decidedly bland as a result.

On the one hand, inexperience…

Heading into 2016, it’s not inconsistency or blandness which represents the greatest question for USC’s defensive front. It’s inexperience.

With Woods, Simmons, Greg Townsend Jr., Claude Pelon and Cody Temple gone, the Trojans don’t return a single starter up front.

That’s 76% of the tackles produced by USC defensive linemen last year gone.

If you add in Kenny Bigelow’s production, since he will miss the entirety of the 2016 season due to a knee injury, it’s actually 80%. That’s a glaring problem to be addressed.

SEE MORE: Projecting USC’s 2016 Starting Lineup

Noah Jefferson is the only interior lineman with a single game of starting experience — literally, he started one game last year.

While Green and Jefferson both appeared in all 14 games last year, the remaining three players returning for USC — Jacob Daniel, Malik Dorton and Kevin Scott — have a combined five career appearances between them.

…On the other hand, ability

It would be easy to adopt a doom-and-gloom attitude towards USC’s defensive front if starts, appearances and experience in general was the only thing that mattered.

It’s not, and USC knows well how important the insertion of talented young players can be towards success.

Across the three interior positions an argument could be made that USC will upgrade at each of them in 2016.

Though Clancy Pendergast designates his defensive fronts differently than Justin Wilcox, for the sake of clarity there was Townsend Jr. on the left, Woods in the middle and Simmons on the right of the front three in 2015.

This season, that front three is projected to be Green on the left, Jefferson in the middle and Dorton on the right.

SEE MORE: How USC’s Players Fit Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 Scheme

Green has, undoubtedly, the highest ceiling of the bunch and should be an improvement over Townsend Jr. If he makes a Leonard Williams-esque step up as a sophomore, the USC front would have the star it has been lacking since the Big Cat’s departure.

In the middle, Jefferson impressed during his first season. Surpassing Woods this year is no given, but there is potential to be mined in that 6-foot-6, 315-pound body.

On the right, Dorton was the surprise standout player of the spring.

Along with those three, there should be a greater collection of contributors going down the depth chart.

Losing Bigelow was a blow, but the arrival of Utah transfer Tu’ikolovatu and JC transfer Josh Fatu should give the Trojans some veteran heads up front.

SEE ALSO: What Does Stevie Tu’ikolovatu’s Transfer Mean for USC? 

They’ll also have Daniel and Scott available to supply further depth.

Meanwhile, freshman Liam Jimmons had a chance to get acclimated to the system as an early enrollee while Connor Murphy is an exciting young talent who may be moved inside thanks to his continued growth since signing day.

There’s also the chance that offensive lineman Khaliel Rodgers will stick with defense after making the switch during summer workouts.

Could Malik Dorton break out?

Green probably isn’t getting the attention he deserves this offseason, especially when considering he played much of his freshman season while still getting back to full speed from a high school knee injury.

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Still, Green is and has always been expected to elevate himself to impact player status eventually.

Dorton, on the other hand, was a bit of a lost man from USC’s 2014 recruiting class.

A three-star recruit who redshirted his first year, Dorton has been well behind the shadows of his peers, including Adoree’ Jackson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Toa Lobendahn, Damien Mama, Viane Talamaivao, Ajene Harris, Jalen Greene, John Plattenburg and even Jonathan Lockett and Chris Brown.

SEE MORE: 20 Best Three-Star Recruits In USC History

For two years in Wilcox’s system, Dorton was an in-betweener, two small to be a lineman but not quite fit to be an outside linebacker. He played in the first two games of the 2015 season but never saw the field again.

Heading into his junior season Dorton has put on the necessary weight to put his hand in the dirt and function as a right-sided defensive tackle in Pendergast’s system.

And with a breakout performance in spring camp, Dorton is now poised for a breakout season.