USC football 2019 preview: Defensive line holds key to defensive success

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

After struggling in 2018, the USC football defensive line looks to bounce back with another year of experience for returning players and some dynamic new faces.

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Success for the USC football defense in 2019 will begin with the effectiveness of its defensive line.

With an unproven secondary and a linebacker corps replacing Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin, the Trojans will lean on the talent and depth returning to the defensive line to stonewall opposing offenses.

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Here’s a look at what to expect from the unit:

Who’s back:

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.)

Who’s gone:

DT Malik Dorton

Who’s new:

DE Nick Figueroa (Jr.)DE Drake Jackson (Fr.)DT Stanley Ta’ufo’ou (Fr.)DT Dejon Benton (Fr.)

The tale of the tape

The best-case scenario for the Trojan defensive line this upcoming season is for the unit to dominate opponents’ backfields.

With edge-rushing linebacker Porter Gustin moving on to the NFL, USC lacks a clear-cut replacement within the linebacker group. One of USC’s solutions this spring was to return to a four-man defensive front to give pass-rushing opportunities to highly-touted freshman Drake Jackson, JUCO transfer Nick Figueroa and redshirt junior Conner Murphy.

Jackson’s play in the spring ignited comparisons to Trojan-great Leonard Williams, but Murphy also flashed the ability to be effective on the edge after transitioning to defensive end from outside linebacker. The emergence of one of these players, or a combination of the three, is crucial to USC’s defensive identity this season.

Yet, the play of Jay Tufele, Christian Rector, Marlon Tuipulotu and Brandon Pili will likely determine how successful the Trojans are defensively in 2019.

Tufele is receiving ample preseason attention from the media, earning spots on the Pac-12 all-conference first-team defense, Bednarik and Nagurski watch lists, and a first-round grade in some mock drafts. For USC to thrive, Tufele needs to draw constant double teams in the middle of the offensive line and penetrate the backfield when presented with one-on-one opportunities.

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On the outside, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast needs Rector to play with consistency while leading the defensive line. The redshirt senior was second on the team in sacks and tackles for a loss in 2018, but largely compiled those numbers against Oregon State and Utah. Only one of his nine tackles for a loss came outside of those two games. For Rector, capitalizing the attention opponents afford to Tufele and displaying the ability to finish plays regularly could move the defensive line towards elite status this season.

At the other defensive tackle spot, Tuipulotu and Pili are primarily run stoppers that must force running backs to alter their paths over the course of a game. Tuipulotu will likely get the starting nod early-on after sacking the quarterback 4.5 times last season and receiving most of the first-team reps in spring, but rotation among the defensive line is paramount to USC’s success.

But will they improve?

Last season, USC put together solid defensive performances in the majority of its games, but the defensive line often found itself behind the eight-ball due to an ineffective offense. Then, when Gustin went down, the defensive line struggled to put pressure on quarterbacks, and the Trojans only tallied 29 sacks after taking down opposing signal-callers 40 times the previous season.

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With many of the same players returning from last season, it is plausible that USC will struggle to rush the passer again in 2019, which would spell doom for a young, unproven secondary that must receive as much support as possible. Until some of the young DB’s garner game experience, the defensive line has to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable for USC to have success.

Meanwhile, USC’s results against the rush were not much better. Opposing offenses had little trouble running on the Trojans, posting 164.8 yards per game. The struggles against the run culminated with Joshua Kelly and the UCLA offensive line eviscerating the USC defense to the tune of 318 yards rushing. Kelly tallied 289 yards on the ground, which is the most rushing yards ever for a player in the Battle for the Victory Bell.

If the defensive line isn’t winning the battle in the trenches, the youth of the other defensive units will be exposed.

Expectations aplenty for Drake Jackson

After Uchenna Nwosu left for the NFL after 2016 and Gustin failed to stay healthy last season, USC struggled to challenge opposing offensive lines. Jackson could be the next in line to strike fear into the hearts of opposing offenses and dominate the line of scrimmage for the Men of Troy.

Despite Jackson being just a freshman on a defensive line that boasts NFL talent at every position, any time a comparison to Leonard Williams is thrown around, it turns heads. The Centennial product was the talk of Spring Camp, which culminated in the Trojans’ Spring Showcase when he intercepted a Jack Sears’ screen pass one-handed and then outran everyone to the endzone.

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The prospect of Jackson following in the “Big Cat’s” footsteps is a thrilling concept for USC supporters. Williams accumulated 13.5 tackles for a loss and eight sacks his freshman season. If Jackson can even approach producing at that level, the Trojans can expect to have a great deal of success on defense.