Before this season, I was excited about USC’s defense, to say the least. Not only did they look talented on paper, with potential high-round draft picks Leonard Williams, Su'a Cravens, and Antwaun Woods on the roster, but new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox was presumably a new era coach who ran a versatile, hybrid defense designed to stop the new-age option offenses of programs like Oregon and Auburn.
The thing I was most excited for, and the value I thought Wilcox would bring to this USC football team, was Wilcox’s willingness to adapt. That was supposed to be his calling card.
Whether that meant moving his defensive players around like he did at Washington with Shaq Thompson, showing multiplicity in his defensive fronts with switches between the 3-4, 4-3, and more exotic looks, or calling a variety of defensive coverages to keep opposing offenses on their heels, Wilcox was supposed to be an innovator whose main mission was to tailor his defense to his players’ strengths.
But instead of witnessing the work of a creative defensive visionary, we’ve seen a vanilla, unvaried defense that lacks discipline and any semblance of consistency so far. They’re mediocre at best, and there’s no way around it.
Out of 128 college football defenses, USC ranks 67th in opponent rush yards per game, and 51st in opponent pass yards per game. They’re 50th in defensive takeaways. There’s nothing special about this defense, and no calling card or identity to speak of.
Defensive lineman Leonard Williams will be a first round pick in the next NFL draft, but as the best overall player on the defense and USC’s best pass rusher, Wilcox has him playing largely a two-gap role on early downs that limits his abilities.
Williams is fantastic at this role -- this isn't a surprise. But a player as gifted as Williams should be moved around and allowed to play to his strengths in a variety of roles (i.e. J.J. Watt, or even Jurrell Casey), not just regulated to 4- or 5-technique playing the run first, where he’s forced into double teams on a regular basis.
Stand him up. Switch to a 4-3 front and put Leonard Williams at 3-technique to get him single-blocked on a guard, or to defensive end where he can play more in space. Put him at outside linebacker, for crying out loud. I’d just like to see him used in a way that dictates the game to the offense, a way that forces the offense to adjust to USC and not the other way around.
Moving Williams around is something opposing offenses can’t account for all the time, which would potentially create matchup advantages for USC. This becomes even more important considering the fact USC hasn't exactly been lighting opponents up with their pass rush -- the Trojans rank 87th in percentage of plays on which they've sacked the opposing quarterback.
The same idea can be applied to "safety" Su’a Cravens. I was intrigued when I saw that he would be playing a lot of snaps at linebacker this year, hence the quotation marks. In this role, his athleticism could be taken advantage of close to the line of scrimmage in a variety of roles like covering tight ends, tackling, and blitzing. This role is very similar to the one Washington defender Shaq Thompson played under Wilcox in which Thompson played a little bit of everything, and that’s what I expected to see.
While this is a cool concept to employ some of the time, Cravens still isn’t physically equipped to hold up against offensive linemen on a consistent basis -- no 220 pound player is. This was no more evident than against Boston College late in the fourth quarter, when Cravens was easily blocked out of the play during Tyler Murphy’s 66 yard touchdown run.
It makes sense to slide Su'a Cravens down to linebacker in sub-packages where the offense is more likely to pass, but in base defense Cravens should play safety, his more natural position. It’s not like USC’s pass defense can get any worse than it was against Arizona State, right?
Cravens likes playing around the ball, but it’s hard for him to get close to the ball when the ball is being thrown over his head for a long touchdown pass against Arizona State.
My last point is one I already touched on in my post after the Arizona State game, which is this: Justin Wilcox hasn’t blitzed much this year, which is fine if his defense stays disciplined, tackles, and limits big plays. That’s the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive philosophy, and it works out pretty well for them. But when the defense isn’t blitzing, isn't creating turnovers and is still allowing big plays to happen like it's currently doing, that’s when the team is in trouble.
Wilcox has his work cut out for him. His defense lacks discipline and direction right now, and he better get that fixed quickly. The Desert Swarm awaits.