USC Football: Who will be the next anchor at nose tackle?

Defensive lineman Marlon Tuipulotu during USC Football practice. (Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy)
Defensive lineman Marlon Tuipulotu during USC Football practice. (Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy) /

Replacing Stevie Tu’ikolovatu is no easy feat, but USC Football has a number of options vying for the opportunity to anchor the Trojan defense.

The 2017 College Football Season is filled with expectations for USC Football, equipped with the Heisman favorite at quarterback, a myriad of watch list players on the offense and defense. A playoff berth is no longer appears to be a pipe dream.

However, if the 2017 Trojans are going to realize their potential, it won’t be the Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback or the potentially All-American linebacker corps who will set the tone. No, it will be the rarely mentioned, often forgotten, nose tackle unit.

USC runs a stand up attacking 5-2 defense, which is a variation of the 3-4 defense. That means there are three down linemen and four linebackers. The purpose of this scheme is to have the down linemen “eat blocks”, which refers to a defensive lineman occupying an offensive lineman so they cannot work their way and block a linebacker.

Eating blocks allows for the linebackers to have more favorable match ups and opportunities to make plays.  The most important of those down linemen is the nose tackle.

The nose tackle is key because they have to face the double team and eat the most blocks, keeping the two inside linebackers free so they can make stops either at or behind the line of scrimmage in the run game.

CHECK OUT: Ranking USC’s 2017 Schedule By Threat Level

USC was ranked 26th nationally in rush defense and first in the Pac-12 in 2016. That was in large part thanks to senior nose tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu anchoring USC’s defense. With Tu’ikolovatu now in the NFL, the Trojans have to find someone to take his place. The four Trojans tasked with filling Stevie T’s shoes are Josh Fatu, Marlon Tuipulotu, Brandon Pili and Kenny Bigelow Jr.

Josh Fatu

Fatu, the 6-foot 2 315-pound senior, was the primary back up to Tu’ikolovatu last season appearing in 12 games except against UCLA, which he missed due to injury.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast doesn’t like to rotate players on defense and has mentioned he intends to stick to this philosophy in 2017.

Fatu’s experience and talent is something that Pendergast clearly values. However, he was still only used as a backup last season and did not infringe greatly on Tu’ikolovatu’s playing time.

So, while Fatu may be experienced and talented, where is his ceiling? Is he a solid rotation piece? Or can he become the monster in the middle that USC needs to win the Pac-12 and challenge for a College Football Playoff spot?

Marlon Tuipulotu

The most intriguing name at nose tackle is Marlon Tuipulotu. The former four-star recruit enrolled early at USC in the spring. Tuipulotu then validated that decision by having an incredible spring, capped off by an impressive performance in the spring game.

Tuipulotu isn’t quite as big as Fatu, checking in at 6-foot 3 and weighing 295. Despite being lighter, he has shown the ability in the spring to use his hands well and penetrate into the backfield causing disruptions.

The question will be, can he gain enough experience and understand his responsibilities in Pendergast’s system?

If he can, Tuipulotu has the opportunity to have his name mentioned with along with some of the past great Trojan D-linemen like Jurrell Casey and Leonard Williams, while also anchoring what could be the best Trojan defense since the Pete Carroll era.

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

Kenny Bigelow Jr.

Bigelow is coming off multiple injuries and has not played since 2015. However, when able to play he did make an impact playing in 13 games.

The biggest question with Bigelow is, will he be able to get into game shape while getting reacquainted with the playbook before one of the others vying for play time establish themselves?

Though, at 6-foot-3, 300 pounds, having Bigelow on hand to eat blocks against teams who like to run between the tackles like Stanford definitely won’t hurt.

Brandon Pili

A massive freshman listed at 6-foot-4, 320 pounds, Pili is a natural-born block eater.

The three-star recruit from Westview High School in Portland, Oregon was likely brought in as a project who former Trojan and defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze could mold into the perfect nose tackle.

How Pili adjusts remains to be seen, though he has already made an impression during fall camp. If he can learn the system that type of size cannot be coached. A player that size, lined up over the center, puts tremendous pressure on the center and the snap, which can lead to turnovers. Also, there is the potential for Pili to eat two to three blocks allowing USC’s athletic linebackers to shine.

TRENDING STORY: 5 Most Important Juniors for USC in 2017

It will be interesting to see who emerges over the final week of fall camp, as well as in the first game versus Western Michigan.

Pendergast will be doing his best to sort out the best option before Week 2 versus Stanford. More so than any other team Stanford is going to test USC’s rush defense.

If USC is going win and continue to work towards realizing their goal of making it into the playoff, they’ll need the proper anchor in place.