J.R. Tavai went from relative unknown to key USC starter in his junior season and contributed greatly to what has been a strong front seven over the past two years. But, with his graduation, who will step up to replace him?
When Clancy Pendergast took over as USC's defensive coordinator for the 2013 season, it was unbelievable how quickly the Trojan defense improved. The 5-2 system he implemented is a variation of the traditional 3-4 front, with three defensive linemen with their hands in the dirt, and four linebackers behind them.
This becomes a 5-2 when you line up the outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage, next to the linemen. This fit the Trojans' defensive personnel incredibly well. It allowed undersized defensive ends, like Morgan Breslin, to still rush the passer, but put them in a better position to apply pressure, as defenses did not know which of the linebackers would rush and which would drop into coverage.
Once Morgan Breslin's season ended due to injury, J.R. Tavai stepped in and contributed an incredible amount to the defense at the same position, and subsequently has become one of the great playmakers on the team. New USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has kept things relatively similar on the defensive front, which helped the front seven still have success. However, with Tavai gone, who will join Su'a Cravens as the other Trojan starting outside linebacker?
For the first game, I would almost guarantee that Scott Felix will be starting at Tavai's rush end position. Felix has plenty of game experience and started five games this season, three before Cravens fully switched to a linebacker position. He has proved to be a solid rusher, but we will have to see if he can step up to match the level of production that Tavai brought as a full-time player.
USC's roster is filled with young outside linebackers that have yet to prove themselves, or even play, like Don Hill and Malik Dorton, but I would not be surprised to see a talented recruit like Osa Masina start later into the season. If he can learn the system fast enough, which is harder for a fall enrollee, he may be starting by the middle of the season. This would be similar to Adoree' Jackson's track this season. Jackson's playing time increased to becoming a full-time starter at cornerback midway through the season.
With the void that Leonard Williams' departure leaves at defensive end, the outside linebackers will be even more crucial to help generate a pass rush for the 2015 season. Everyone available needs to step up in order for our defense stay strong at the end of games, when everything is on the line.