At the conclusion of spring, Lane Kiffin said tailback and defensive tackle were the two areas that worried him most. We talked about tailback last week.
On the defensive line, the Trojans' head coach isolated the tackle position because on the outside, USC looks good. Senior ends Devon Kennard and Wes Horton played well this spring, maintained good health and saw good backup play by early enrollee Morgan Breslin, veteran Kevin Greene and redshirt freshmen Greg Townsend and Charles Burks.
At end, the Trojans seem solid. With the addition of greyshirt freshman DeVante Wilson and incoming freshman Leonard Williams, this position will likely be dominant and the competition fierce for some time.
But inside lies the worry. We saw 3-technique George Uko reach a new level of personal growth, although he still struggled with consistency at times. Kiffin called him the "perfect 3-technique" but defensive line coach Ed Orgeron said he has a long ways to go before he reaches that level. Still, the promise is there.
Uko's position lines up between the guard and tackle, shifting toward the guard where he has to use his athleticism to attack the backfield, whether that's stopping the run or getting to the quarterback. Orgeron has coached plenty of great 3-techniques in his career, and said Uko has the capability and potential to get to that level and believes this year will be a breakout one for the junior.
No, the concern is not with Uko. It's with the other defensive tackles. Next to him at nose guard will likely be sophomore J.R. Tavai, who is expected to earn the starting job after the loss of Christian Tupou to graduation. Huge shoes to fill: Tupou was a workhorse, a veteran player that loved being around the game of football. Kiffin said Tavai is more naturally fit at the 3-technique, but because of Uko being there, he is moving him over to nose. Challenging Tavai for that spot will be clogger Antwaun Woods who has dropped considerable weight and looks more focused after redshirting the 2011 season. Woods and Tavai are different players playing the same position and will likely be utilized differently.
Behind Uko, Tavai and Woods lies a serious question mark. Listed behind Woods as the third-string nose tackle is Cody Temple, but Temple -- who moved over from the offensive line a couple months ago -- missed a considerable portion of spring after undergoing ankle surgery. Orgeron said he saw flashes from Temple early, so he will be a player to watch in the fall.
At the 3-technique there is more confusion than anything else. Walk-on redshirt senior Zack Kusnir will compete for playing time but he does not have the game experience that coaches need to maintain a high level of play when Uko needs rest. And at the three-deep is Christian Heyward, who underwent shoulder surgery after the fall and missed all of spring. It's unknown what the redshirt freshman can bring to the line but he too is one to watch.
Now it's possible that other players move to defensive tackle, like an end for instance. Townsend tried his hand inside for a couple practices, but Orgeron said it was an unsuccessful experiment and will keep him at end. Incoming freshman Leonard Williams could make the move to tackle, but Kiffin said he wants to see him play end first as he expects big things from the Florida native, along the lines of what Nick Perry did here. If Williams gains some weight, the move inside might be a wise one for the coaching staff who can move him back to end when Kennard and Horton graduate. Come fall, coaches may find that Williams is just a guy you want on the field.