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USC Football Summer Preview: Defensive Line

USC’s defensive front seven has been lauded as one of the strengths of the roster. But despite great talent, USC failed to make the plays last year that truly mattered. Too many third downs were converted on runs between the tackles. Too many quarterbacks were given time in the pocket. What will change in 2019?

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Southern California Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The layman’s view of an air raid team is one that scores in bunches through spacing both vertically and horizontally. The perception is also that air raid teams play with suspect defenses, ready to be gashed both on the ground and through the air. Many SEC fans look down upon the Big 12 for the lack of defense, despite Texas’ convincing win over Georgia and Oklahoma’s dance with Alabama.

Graham Harrell has touched down with his air raid, but the Trojan defensive line will not be pushovers. Not by a long shot. Clancy Pendergast was retained as defensive coordinator after a string of firings on the offensive side of the ball in 2018. His scheme has always been simple in gap recognition but complex with different substitutions and packages. It has been adjusted this year to make up for last seasons shortcomings, in which USC’s run defense was nearly identical to Oklahoma’s (4.35 rush yards allowed per attempt versus 4.38 respectively).

There will no longer be a Uchenna Nwosu esque predator position. Rather, pass rush will be expected from defensive ends, and a rotating outside linebacker depending on down and distance.

USC commands pedigree along the defensive line. On the inside, Jay Tufele is expected to hold down defensive tackle with Marlon Tuipulotu at nose tackle. These are familiar faces, as are most of their backups. Jay Tufele has been named to the Bednarik Award watch list, which celebrates the nation’s best defensive player. He has the talent to play at that level, but because of the strong backups behind him, he probably will not amass the counting numbers that are needed for the Bednarik. Sophomore Jacob Lichtenstein will be second on the depth chart and push for playing time at defensive tackle. Brandon Pili will also push Tuipulotu for his job on the inside.

The fresh blood that has many excited is true freshman Drake Jackson, who will likely start and rotate as defensive end. Jackson made his introductions to fans during the spring game, in which he pressured the quarterback from the left edge, intercepted the errant pass, and returned it for a touchdown.

NCAA Football: U.S. Army All-American Bowl Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Jackson has the talent to be a game wrecker on the edge, a la Cameron Jordan, disrupting both rushing and passing attacks. Audiences should look for him to flash when he is on the field. But this will be Jackson’s first foray into college competition, with bigger and stronger opponents than he faced in high school. He will inevitably have growing pains against tougher competition, and may rotate with juniors Connor Murphy and Caleb Tremblay.

One name has been missing from this list, and it is Christian Rector. Rector looked like the future of USC’s defensive line in 2016, when he had seven sacks and causes two fumbles as a sophomore. Pundits were discussing his exit from college into the NFL after his junior 2018 season. That was not the case.

After sack artist Porter Gustin broke his ankle against Colorado, Rector and co. failed to pick up the pass rushing slack. Rector regressed last year with only 4.5 sacks.

So it was a curious decision when coaching brass tapped Rector to go to Pac-12 media day with HC Clay Helton and Michael Pittman Jr. This decision foreshadows Rector as a team captain, considering eventual captains Porter Gustin and Cameron Smith were tapped last season to represent USC at media day. As a captain, Rector will have to be a more vocal leader. He will have to improve his play.

It’s not enough to improve on his 4.5 sacks his 2018 junior year. He must improve on his 2017 sophomore season.

USC’s defensive line consists mostly of the same faces in different places. The scheme has been tweaked, and last year’s starters are ready to come back and avoid their old mistakes. But in order to get over the top, Drake Jackson needs to pop and Christian Rector needs to go back to being Christian Rector.