USC football’s depth chart on the defensive line will be thinner and more uncertain without Jay Tufele.
USC football had been largely unaffected by opt-outs for the 2020 season up until last week when Jay Tufele announced his decision to declare for the NFL Draft.
The All-Pac-12 defensive lineman had declined to enter the 2020 draft with an eye on improving his stock during his redshirt junior season with the Trojans. The calculus since then has changed.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic resulted in the delay of the fall season with an eye on spring competition. For Tufele and other Trojan NFL hopefuls, a spring season might interfere with his preparations for the pros.
USC football’s defensive line depth chart without Jay Tufele
New USC defensive coordinator Todd Orlando was fortunate to inherit a defensive line massive potential. Tufele was the biggest piece of that puzzle. Now he’ll have to cope without him.
When Orlando’s defense was at its best in 2017, he had 305-pounder Poona Ford at nose tackle, 300-pound DE Chris Nelson beside him and 280-pound Charles Omenihi opposite.
USC was ready to bring comparable size to the table with their defensive line group in 2020.
Of course, the cancelation of Spring Camp prevented anyone from seeing what lineup Orlando and new defensive line coach Vic So’oto would prefer.
They could have run with a front three of Tufele, Marlon Tuipulotu and Drake Jackson. They could have pushed Jackson to an outside linebacker role and preferred the Big 3 of Tufele, Tuipulotu and Pili.
The calculation will remain the same even if the personnel has to be adjusted.
Brandon PiliJacob LichtensteinStanley Ta’ufo’ouKobe PepeTuli Tuipulotu
Marlon TuipulotuDe’Jon Benton ORTrevor TroutJamar Sekona
Drake JacksonCaleb Tremblay ORConnor Murphy ORNick Figueroa
Tuipulotu has been the obvious choice at nose tackle because of his stronger technical ability and consistency. However, he’s 305 pounds where Pili is 325 pounds. In a system with a need for a space-eater in the middle, Pili might fit that bill more effectively. However, his less-disciplined play is a concern.
Either way, Tufele’s absence likely simplifies the Tuipulotu-Pili debate. Instead of serving as a one-two at nose tackle, the temptation to throw both on the field together will be greater. Pili is as close to Tufele’s dynamism as USC can expect to find on the roster currently. That is unless backups like Nick Figueroa and Jacob Lichtenstein or young prospects like De’jon Benton or Kobe Pepe prove worthy of some playing time.
Don’t be surprised if Tuipulotu retains his role as the starting nose tackle while Pili fills the gap left by Tufele. It could work out the other way around, but coaches almost always default to the safest choice first. That involves Tuipulotu in the middle.
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As for the third man upfront, losing Tufele’s pass-rushing presence may be a good reason to keep Jackson at DE instead of OLB. That’ll be up to Orlando in the end.
The ceiling of the defensive line is undoubtedly hurt by the loss of Tufele. So is depth, with even more importance put on Tuipulotu and Pili to anchor the line. The uncertainty behind them is concerning.