With an injury crisis hitting the defensive line, how will USC Football line up defensively against Notre Dame on Saturday?
When USC Football started the 2017 season, Christian Rector was a backup, Brandon Pili was a sure-fire redshirt candidate and Liam Jimmons was clear reserve.
Seven weeks into the season, that trio could see major action in the most important game on the Trojans’ slate, and another true freshmen could have his redshirt burned.
Here’s where USC’s defensive front stands going into the Notre Dame game:
Starting predator linebacker Porter Gustin is out with a broken toe and torn bicep. Starting defensive end Rasheem Green is not practicing with an ankle sprain. Starting nose tackle Josh Fatu is out with a concussion sustained in a car accident. Backup nose tackle Marlon Tuipulotu is out for the season after back surgery. Veteran lineman Kenny Bigelow is retired after a string of knee injuries derailed his Trojan career.
Redshirt junior Malik Dorton is the only starter not directly contending with injury, and he is just a couple of weeks removed from suffering a knee sprain against Washington State.
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As a result of all those injuries, USC’s practice line up looks very different than normal. Christian Rector, who used to be Green’s backup, is at the predator. Liam Jimmons is at defensive end. Brandon Pili at nose tackle. Dorton is at defensive tackle and Uchenna Nwosu is on the edge at strongside linebacker.
The edge positions are no concern at this point. Nwosu is having an All-American-type season and Rector actually made the AP midseason All-American team, leading the Pac-12 in sacks since he took over for Gustin weeks ago.
The interior positions, however, present some major issues.
It is now a near-certainty that Pili, whose redshirt was burned two weeks ago, will make his first career start against a stout Notre Dame offensive line.
Green has been limited in practice as a preventative measure. He is expected to travel and start for the Trojans in South Bend. However, it is now a near certainty that Pili, whose redshirt was burned two weeks ago, will make his first career start against a stout Notre Dame offensive line.
The Irish rank fifth nationally in rushing offense in 2017 and Pili is now USC’s first line of defense against that attack.
At the very least, the Trojans were able to get him into live action against Oregon State and Utah.
“I thought he played excellent against Utah,” head coach Clay Helton said of his 320-pound freshman. “He really stepped up big time for us.”
It will be up to Pili to hold the point of attack, allowing linebackers like Cameron Smith to clean up behind him.
Beside Pili, the Trojans will have to hope that Green and Dorton’s bodies hold up.
If not, there are a few “break glass in case of emergency” options.
The first is taking advantage of a roster ripe with versatility.
“You’ve got guys who can rotate in different spot and as we’ve done here for many years, we double train positions, just for the worst possible scenario,” Helton said.
Jimmons, a redshirt freshman who has only played in three games, practiced this week with the first team, shifting between nose tackle and defensive tackle. His lone tackle of the year came against Utah and he may be called upon to increase that total against Notre Dame.
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Dorton can also slide in to fill the nose tackle spot, though that would be less-than-ideal with Dorton weighing in at an already-undersized 280 pounds.
Then there’s Rector, who has thrived at the predator spot but can also move back to his original role at defensive end if misfortune befalls Green.
A rash of injuries could see the Trojans turn to an even more drastic measure: Burning Jay Tufele’s redshirt.
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The former four-star and No. 2 defensive tackle in the class of 2017 has worked with USC’s scout team since the start of the season, but he was called up to the practice big leagues this week, even seeing some time with the first team defense.
“To have the chance to win a Pac-12 Championship, you may need every soldier you’ve got around you,” Helton said, pointing to between six and eight games left on the schedule to justify burning the redshirt if necessary. “Jay is a pretty dang good one and has really grown up over this first half of the season. We would not move him over if we didn’t think he could help us.”
While it has become a real possibility, the ideal for USC would be to avoid taking that step.
Instead, Helton and company will lean on the veterans Green and Dorton to see the rookie Pili through the game. Any other young Trojans who see action will have to come in with a “next man up” mentality.
“Those guys have made a lot of improvements since Day 1,” Dorton said. “So if they throw those guys out there, I expect them to play well.”