USC football spring preview: Time for defensive line to reach potential

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

After gaining valuable experience in 2018, USC football’s defensive line must take the next step in 2019 to buy time for a rebuild elsewhere on defense.

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USC football loses a ton of talent on defense in 2019, but the one unit on that side of the ball largely untouched by departures this season is the defensive line.

With as much potential as any position on the roster, the defensive front will play a huge role in the coming campaign, whether they provide a solid foundation for the rebuilt defense, or fail to live up to expectations.

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First, they must continue to make strides the Spring Camp with more pressure than ever on their shoulders.

Roster Rundown

Departing (1):Malik Dorton

Returning (9):*DE Christian Rector (RS-Sr.)DE Connor Murphy (RS-Jr.)DE Caleb Tremblay (RS-Jr.)DE Jacob Lichtenstein (RS-So.)DT Liam Jimmons (RS-Jr.)DT Brandon Pili (Jr.)*DT Jay Tufele (RS-So.)*DT Marlon Tuipulotu (RS-So.)DT Trevor Trout (RS-Fr.)

Spring Enrollees (2):DE Nick Figueroa (Jr.)DE Drake Jackson (Fr.)

Fall Enrollees (1):DT Dejon Benton (Fr.)

*Returning starter

Despite the loss of Malik Dorton, USC returns the vast majority of contributors on the defensive line. Those include three starters in Christian Rector, Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu, along with a once starter in Brandon Pili.

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Rector may find his way over to outside linebacker once more, but he figures to fill a utility role at defensive end at the very least.

Tufele and Tuipulotu were the crown jewels of the class of 2017 up front and they will be coming into Year 3 with a year of starting experience under their belts. Now is the time for each to reach their vast potential.

Pili would do well to shake off his 2018 campaign, which saw him lose his starting job and run into trouble on the field late in the season.

The Trojans also bring back an intriguing supporting cast in 2019.

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Liam Jimmons and Jacob Lichtenstein started to come into their own at the tail end of last season after taking a few seasons to develop. They won’t be competing for starting jobs, but their role as contributors could surely grow with a strong offseason.

Depth on the defensive line is set to grow exponentially as well this year. Three players who took redshirts in 2018 will be available: Caleb Tremblay, Connor Murphy and Trevor Trout.

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Trout has great size for the nose tackle spot, at 6-foot-4, 310 pounds, though it’s difficult to see where a breakthrough will be possible this year.

Murphy and Tremblay are more veteran figures who could challenge for playing time at defensive end, especially if Rector moves to the edge, but they will face new competition from junior college transfer Nick Figueroa and four-star freshman Drake Jackson, both January enrollees.

Biggest Battle

With Tufele and Tuipulotu unlikely to yield their starting jobs, all eyes should be on the defensive end spot, where Rector, Murphy, Tremblay, Figueroa and Jackson will be locked in a battle for playing time.

Positional intrigue abounds with Rector and Jackson both holding potential as outside linebackers, not to mention Murphy, who transitioned to the defensive line from that spot in the first place. Versatility could work in their favor, especially if USC sticks with a base nickel formation in 2019. But if the three-man front sees more run, the junior college transfers may very well benefit.

Player to Watch

Jackson will be the new kid on the block this spring, looking to make a strong first impression.

He was USC’s highest-ranked defender in the class of 2019 and possesses strong pass rushing ability. Considering the Trojans struggles getting to the passer last year, his skillset could be a blessing for Clancy Pendergast and new defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a.

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Still, Pendergast’s penchant for only playing those players who have earned his trust isn’t likely to end any time soon. Jackson will have to progress quickly to truly battle for a contributing role.