USC Football’s Flexibility On Defense Will Be Key In 2016

USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast during practice at Howard Jones Field. (Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy)
USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast during practice at Howard Jones Field. (Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy) /

Flexibility will be key for USC football’s defense in 2016, with greater depth and a variety of line ups to use against opposition offenses.

They probably won’t call it platooning — that was a Steve Sarkisian term — but the 2016 USC football defense will feature much more rotation than the 2013 version under Clancy Pendergast.

The newly released USC depth chart for 2016 makes that very clear.

“We’re just trying to get the best 11 guys on the field,” Pendergast said before the depth chart was released.

Of course, the best 11 guys can change depending on situation and opposition, so expect to see regular changes across every level of the defense.

In some years, the prevalence of “ORs” on the depth chart could be read as a sign of players not distinguishing themselves from others.

When it comes to USC’s 2016 defense, the ORs are more often an indicator that context matters when determining pecking order.

It’s easiest to start with the exceptions. Cornerbacks Adoree’ Jackson and Iman Marshall are unquestioned starters, as are outside linebackers Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu. Outside of those positions, the defensive line up is a free-for-all.

Cameron Smith will anchor the linebackers but there will likely be a revolving door of players beside him.

SEE ALSO: 10 Best USC Linebackers of All-Time

Michael Hutchings, who Pendergast called one of the most improved players this offseason, earned the starting nod thanks to his leadership and understanding of the defensive scheme, but behind him Osa Masina and Quinton Powell offer unique abilities which can be tailored to specific games.

“There’s some diversity in the group that we have. Some guys are better suited to play the run than others and some guys are better suited to play more of an opened up game out in space than others,” Pendergast said. “I think it’s a good mix.”

Hutchings’ intelligence is an asset, but so is Masina’s power and Powell’s athleticism.

That extends to the safety position, which features an unmistakably similar set up.

Marvell Tell III holds the title of starter at free safety. When he has been healthy this fall, his role has been distinct, and one Pendergast likened to Adrian Wilson’s when he coached the Arizona Cardinals’ defense.

Beside Tell, the variation options of inside linebacker are mirrored. The OR between their names might as well be an AND.

Chris Hawkins is a steady presence, while Leon McQuay III offers the flexibility of athleticism, capable of serving as the nickel back when the Trojans want five defensive backs on the field.

RELATED: Previewing the Trojan Safeties For 2016

While there are three starters listed for two spots at safety, there are four starters listed up front on the defensive line, for just three noted spots.

LISTEN: Depth Chart Breakdown

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Stevie Tu’ikolovatu got the starting job at nose tackle, and if any player appears set to be a mainstay on the defensive line it’s the Utah transfer.

To his left, Rasheem Green and Noah Jefferson share the first team nod. On the right, Green and Malik Dorton are separated by an OR as well.

It’s not that Green didn’t win a starting job, it’s that his role is fluid, while Dorton and Jefferson offer completely different body types and abilities between the former’s speed and the latter’s size.

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Regularly, those three spots will become two as the Trojans shift into their nickel package. That could mean any combination of the four on the field.

Want big bodies on the field? Send in Tu’ikolovatu and Jefferson. Want to get to the passer? Use Green and Dorton.

RELATED: Previewing the Trojan Defensive Line For 2016

On some rare occasions, USC may even deploy a four-man front, throwing all of them on the field at the same time.

That might be the greatest strength of the Trojan defense this season, besides the simplified and aggressive nature of Pendergast’s scheme — improved depth will give the defensive coordinator all manner of options to deploy his players.

So the best 11 players for each situation are on the field.