The defensive line is a bit of a question mark heading into 2015. They're a talented group with loads of potential, but how will they respond to the loss of Leonard Williams? Williams was one of the most productive defensive linemen in the country, racking up 218 total tackles, 36.5 TFL, 21 sacks, and 5 FF in three seasons at USC. A talent like Williams is nearly impossible to replace, but if the Trojans have legitimate hopes of contending for a national title, they'll have to do just that.
The unit is easily the deepest d-line the Trojans have had in years and features a good mix of experienced seniors and highly touted freshman. But there is still some uncertainty within the group. The upperclassmen have plenty of game-experience, but have failed to produce at a high level with any real consistency, and while highly touted recruits are great in the long term, there are always questions about whether true freshmen can contribute meaningful minutes along the defensive front. However, if the veterans can show improvement from last season and a few of the freshmen are ready to enter the rotation right off the bat, this could be one of the best defensive lines in the Pac-12 and possibly the nation.
For the first time in years, USC was afforded the luxury of a defensive line rotation in 2014. The coaching staff often utilized six linemen throughout most games depending on who was available. The good news? They return five of those six players in Antwaun Woods, Delvon Simmons, Claude Pelon, Cody Temple, and Greg Townsend. The bad news? The player they lose, Leonard Williams, accounted for two-thirds of all tackles made along the line by himself.
Here are his numbers compared to the combined production of the five returning players:
Williams: 80 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 7.0 sacks, 3 PD, 3 forced fumbles
Combined: 119 tackles, 15.5 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 4 PD, 0 forced fumbles
Obviously very few linemen are going to put up similar numbers to Leonard Williams, but their combined production leaves a lot to be desired, especially when you consider how often Williams was double-teamed or how many play calls were designed to avoid him. To be fair, Woods and Simmons had solid individual seasons, Pelon showed flashes of elite athleticism at times, and Temple and Townsend were quiet but competent as backups. But if they're going to make up for the loss of the Big Cat they're going to have to make big improvements, especially when it comes to holding the point of attack, getting off blocks, and penetrating the backfield.
Even with Williams, the d-line struggled at times last season. Part of that can be chalked up to learning Justin Wilcox's new system and the adjustment of switching from the 5-2 to the 3-4. It's worth noting that 2015 will be the first time in three years the Trojans return the same defensive coordinator and scheme. Coaching continuity is too often underrated, so hopefully the familiarity with Wilcox's system will unlock untapped potential and yield big things in the defensive trenches.
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Having a year of experience with the system will also play to one of the unit's greatest strengths, its versatility. Several players are more than capable of playing multiple positions along the line including Simmons, Pelon, and Temple, who have played all three spots (DT, NT, DE) at some point in their careers. The coaching staff is already looking to take full advantage of this versatility, they've been mixing and matching various player combinations with the 1st and 2nd units through the first week of fall camp in hopes of finding the best possible lineup. It's most likely that Woods, Simmons, and Pelon will be the starters to open the season, but look for Temple, who is already enjoying a strong fall camp, to make a strong push for serious playing time.
Of all the returning d-linemen, the X-factor could be a player who has zero game experience. Kenny Bigelow arrived at USC with plenty of hype thanks to his elite athleticism (he supposedly ran a 4.9 40 as a high school senior) and size (6'3", 301). He was expected to push for playing time right away, but so far he has yet to see the field thanks to a redshirt freshman season and a torn ACL that ended his sophomore campaign before it began. It's been a long time since Bigelow has played in a live football game. He played his last game in high school on September 21, 2012 (his school, Eastern Christian Academy, played only 3 games that season). If Bigelow can shed the rust, stay healthy, and play up to his potential, the former five-star recruit could end up being the MVP of the d-line. He's been practicing at both nose tackle and defensive end with the 2nd unit so far in fall camp. Look for him to secure a spot as Antwaun Woods' primary backup at NT or possibly break into the starting lineup as a DE or DT.
This year's incoming recruiting class is loaded with talent at almost every position, and the defensive line is no different. The unit's five incoming freshmen include one five-star (Rasheem Green), two four-stars (Noah Jefferson, Jacob Daniel), and two three-stars (Kevin Scott, Christian Rector). All in all, it's probably USC's best d-line recruiting haul since 2008 (Armond Armstead, Jurrell Casey, Wes Horton, Nick Perry, Malik Jackson).
It's clear that this group is the future of the Trojan defensive front, but it's less clear as to whether that future begins this year or not. Rasheem Green is yet to practice with the team in fall camp due to a knee injury he suffered during his senior year at Serra. Noah Jefferson has already missed a couple practices due to a hyperextended elbow. Kevin Scott has huge upside but he's only played one year of competitive football and may need a year or two to get used to the speed of the college game. Christian Rector has tremendous athletic ability, but at only 260 LBs he checks in as the lightest defensive lineman in the unit and may need a year of weight training before he's ready to contribute. Jacob Daniel has been highlighted by Sark as one of the standout freshmen so far, but he's also coming off of knee surgery last season and the coaches may want to ease him into live game situations.
Considering that the defensive line is so top heavy with seniors (Woods, Pelon, Simmons, Temple, and Townsend), it might make the most sense to redshirt three or four of the incoming guys. It might even make the most sense to redshirt all five of them, but that's highly unlikely. The talent is too good to keep off the field for an entire year. My guess is that Green and possibly Daniel will seriously compete for playing time as backups while the rest of the group redshirts.