Phil Steele’s 2014 Preseason All-Pac 12 player lists came out last week. Seven players on USC’s defense are included.
Not only does this show that the defensive side of the ball is loaded with talent, but the new addition of defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox should unveil an aggressive yet unique defense that specializes in putting these talented players in the best possible positions to succeed.
For instance, let’s highlight sophomore safety Su’a Cravens, who was one of three Trojans to make Steele’s All-Pac 12 first team. Cravens has bulked up to over 230 pounds this offseason (on purpose, might I add), and his 6’2" stature makes him a safety-linebacker hybrid who can play deep pass coverage as well as defend the run close to the line of scrimmage.
I would expect Wilcox to use Cravens similar to how the athletic University of Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson was employed in Wilcox’s defense last year.
Said Wilcox of Thompson in an interview: "He does some things that a linebacker does; he does some things that a defensive back does because he's essentially our nickel. We'll put him out there on the number two or the slot receiver and let him play. We'll also play him in the run game, obviously."
Thompson and Cravens are similar type of athletes, and expect Cravens to move all around USC’s defense next year whether it’s as a nickel linebacker, base linebacker, slot cornerback, or deep safety.
Defensive lineman Leonard Williams, another member of Steele’s first team, will also likely move around the defensive line from play to play. Williams is an athletic one-gap penetrating type of player, and you can expect Wilcox to deploy him as such, maybe at three-technique against a slower guard, or even outside against a tackle he can overpower.
Again, Wilcox’s willingness to fit his defensive scheme to the strengths of his players goes back to his days in Washington. Wilcox is one of "college football's most respected defensive minds because he's a coaching chameleon. While Wilcox has his preferences about defense, he's a well-versed 35-year-old coach with a willingness to employ whatever defensive strategy fits his current team best," shared Seattle Times writer Jerry Brewer.
Expect multiple types of fronts from the upcoming Trojan defense that give opportunities to J.R. Tavai, Antwaun Woods, and Delvon Simmons, other mentions on Steele’s lists, to wreak havoc. Whether that comes playing one-on-one against a guard in a three-technique position or two-gapping to allow one of their fellow linemen to rush the passer more easily, we are sure to see varying fronts out of Wilcox’s unit.
As Steele’s lists show, the talent is there for USC’s defense. But maybe even a more important piece to next season’s puzzle is the fact that Wilcox will simply let his players play.