The Trojan defense played lockdown football for the most part of last season. But after the firing of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and the losses of players like George Uko and Dion Bailey to the NFL, it's fair to wonder whether or not this year's defense will take a step back.
If new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has anything to say about it, the word "regression" does not exist in his defense's vocabulary.
As Steve Sarkisian's defensive coordinator at the University of Washington, Wilcox took a defense that ranked 108th in the nation and turned it into the 39th ranked unit in his first year.
Now at USC, many wonder what he'll do with a defense that is already coming off a very good year.
After turning on the tape of Washington's matchup against UCLA last year, I saw an aggressive yet cunning defensive coordinator who should thrive with a Trojan roster this year that is more talented than Washington's last year.
5:00 Washington comes out with only two down linemen and stands up three linebackers in between the guards. This unusual look masks who will be blitzing, or if anybody will blitz at all. After the snap, one of the players standing up at the line of scrimmage drops out into zone coverage, one drops into a spy, and three rush the passer. This defensive play call gives the illusion of confusion and pressure for the offense when really it results in only three men rushing while essentially eight drop into coverage. This can result in quarterbacks panicking and rushing the throw when they actually don’t need to.
7:30 Here is a blitz that Wilcox seemingly installed into the game plan in this game in response to UCLA's handoff/bubble screen option. He brings a linebacker and a cornerback off the edge to overload the right side of the offensive line while running the other two non-blitzing linebackers into the space vacated by the blitzers. The blitzers catch the running back from the back side in this instance, but if this was a passing play, Brett Hundley would have thrown the bubble screen outside into the coverage of the shifting linebackers for a minimal gain at most. This is a smart run blitz by Wilcox to counter UCLA's play call.
11:00 Wilcox is again aggressive on third down, calling a double slot corner blitz that attacks the edges from both sides. While the blitzers show their hand before the snap, the coverage does a good job of staying disguised (not showing whether it's man or zone coverage behind the blitz) as the safety and linebacker take the receivers left open by the blitzers after the snap.
18:50 The cornerback at the bottom of the screen disguises his blitz beautifully up to the snap, and the offensive line therefore does not account for him. Wilcox calls this blitz here because the offense is on the right hash, and the right cornerback is therefore much closer to the quarterback than if he were to the wider side of the field. This is another man blitz concept with man coverage behind the blitz as the deep safety takes the blitzing cornerback’s man post-snap.
22:35 Again, Washington comes out with only two down linemen and a bunch of guys standing up. UCLA has trouble recognizing who is blitzing and who is not, which leads to Washington getting a free rusher on Hundley even though UCLA has six blockers to match Washington’s six blitzers.
31:30 UW again comes out in a confusing look, with multiple defenders on their feet at the line of scrimmage potentially showing blitz. At the snap, however, only four out of the six actually blitz, with one dropping into man coverage on the running back and one dropping into a spy on the quarterback. Even though it's only a four man rush, Hundley seems to panic and looks to run almost right away, right into the arms of the spy. Another cunning disguise from Wilcox.
While Justin Wilcox doesn't shy away from exotic looks and aggressive blitzes, especially on third down, he also is great at calling subtler aspects of team defense. For instance, last year he often called stunts for his quick defensive ends in order to get them on the move and in space against less athletic offensive linemen. Imagining the interior stunts that will be put into play on passing downs involving Leonard Williams is a scary thought for offenses.
Wilcox also called a fair amount of Cover-1 Robber, a concept in which the defense comes out in a two deep safety looks--post-snap, the free safety plays deep center field and the strong safety drops down in the short center field and tries to either jump a crossing route or get a big hit on the receiver over the middle. You'll often see the Seattle Seahawks' Kam Chancellor make impact plays when Cover-1 Robber is called.
As far as it relates to USC, I would expect Wilcox to use safety Su'a Cravens as the "Robber" in these situations--his size-athleticism combo is perfect for this role.
The Trojan defense will likely run mostly a 4-3 with Antwaun Woods holding down the 1-technique like Danny Shelton played for the Huskies last year and Leonard Williams playing 3-technique. However, Wilcox has also shown the tendency to switch looks every now and then to a 3-4 front. With talented cover corners like Josh Shaw and Kevon Seymour, Wilcox won't be afraid to blitz out of multiple looks that leave his defensive backs on an island.
As far as the Shaq Thompson role (AKA hybrid playmaker who plays multiple positions), watch out for the aforementioned Cravens to play from multiple areas of the field. He has the size and speed to make an impact in a variety of ways.
USC's defense should be extremely intriguing to watch because of the aggressiveness, versatility, and overall talent that will show up on the field come Autumn. Wilcox is capable of playing mind games on the field with the best of them, and combining the mental aspect of the game with the physical talent that USC will put on the field has the potential to result in an elite defense. Wilcox has done an excellent job of putting his players in the right positions to succeed in the past, and that is why this unit should continue to get even better under the new regime.