Tuesday, it was announced that nose tackle Noah Jefferson will be transferring. This is a huge loss for the Trojans literally and figuratively. The 6’6” 315 lb. lineman had been sitting out since late September due to academic and personal reasons—possibly similar causes behind his decision to leave the program.
Coming into the season, big things were expected of the sophomore. Last year he put up 24 tackles as a true freshman behind Antwaun Woods. The senior’s graduation opened up a huge hole on the line and Jefferson was expected to be a big part of the solution. Unfortunately, the Las Vegas native got hurt in the first game of the season and has not played since (for the short time he was in the game against Alabama their run game was struggling to gain any rhythm in large part due to his presence).
Jefferson’s size and athleticism will be extremely hard to replace. His absence this season has been nullified by the presence of Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, but he will be graduating this spring. Jefferson was supposed to take the former transfer’s spot in the middle of the Trojans’ line in 2017. Now that the former four star recruit is leaving, USC will need to turn to another option.
As of now, Kenny Bigelow, Jacob Daniel, and Kevin Scott are the three returning nose tackles for next season. This is clearly not a position of strength as Bigelow has rarely been healthy throughout his college career and Daniel and Scott have not been able to translate high school success to the college game. Of the three, Bigelow will likely get the first crack at the starting spot due to his experience and previous pedigree of being a top recruit. That being said, overcoming multiple serious knee injuries is extremely hard, especially for a player of his size. Expectations around Bigelow are very low, but there is a chance he can emerge beginning in the spring.
Another significant issue with Jefferson’s departure is the lack of a true replacement on the recruiting trail. Of USC’s 16 current commitments, only one is a defensive tackle. That player, James Lynch, is only 282 lbs. and unlikely to make an impact early in his career at USC (especially at nose tackle where he will need to add at least 20 pounds).
To further illustrate the huge problem this position poses for USC, the Trojans do not appear close to even landing another interior lineman. Marvin Wilson, Jay Tufele, Noah Elliss, and Brandon Pili currently make up Clay Helton’s top targets for nose tackle, but none of them appear to be USC leans at this point. Plus, of those four, only Wilson would likely be able to realistically earn meaningful playing time and he is probably the biggest long shot of the group.
As a result, the Trojans are likely faced with three realistic options: find another graduate transfer similar to Tu’ikolovatu, stick with the current options on the roster and among those committed, or move players around on the line/slightly alter the defensive strategy.
Picking up a graduate transfer for this position is a certainly a possibility, but that is far from a sure thing due to the inconsistency of players moving between schools. If a player at nose tackle does become available, the Trojans would hopefully put on the full court press to bring him to Southern California. However, betting on this strategy is extremely risky and could leave the Trojans short of depth at a vital position.
Similar to the previous option, sticking with the current group on the roster plus James Lynch would also be very risky. All three of the returning nose tackles have significant question marks attached and from all indications Lynch is probably not going to become a difference maker right away. One of the returners could emerge as a viable option, but the fact that neither Scott nor Daniel (Bigelow has been out injured) were able to garner any sort of playing time with Jefferson non-existent for much of the season has to be concerning.
Lastly, the Trojans could decide to move Josh Fatu to nose tackle or even scrap the position as a whole by moving to a 4-3 formation. Listed at 6’3” 290 lbs., Fatu is only 10-15 pounds away from having enough weight to realistically play nose tackle. Over the course of an entire offseason this is a doable option if Fatu can stay committed to a weight program throughout the spring and summer.
On the other hand, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast could also make a slight adjustment and transition to a 4-3 defense. This would put Rasheem Green and Fatu as the team’s starting defensive tackles with Porter Gustin at one defensive end spot. The position opposite Gustin would be more of a question mark as Uchenna Nwosu is more suited to an outside linebacker role in a 3-4. As a result, this switch would potentially give an opportunity to youngsters Connor Murphy and Oluwole Betiku to possibly start on the outside with Nwosu moving to one of the three linebacker spots.
As things currently stand, there is almost no way to predict who will be starting at nose tackle in the first game of the 2017 season. The projected starter, Noah Jefferson, is now no longer in the program and there are no clear replacements. A lot can change between now and National Signing Day in recruiting and Helton may also be able to find another solution similar to Tu’ikolovatu this past offseason. For now though, there are huge question marks at a key position along the defensive line that will need to be answered if the Trojans hope to build on what has been a promising 2016 season.