USC loses its most experienced and productive player at the outside linebacking position in 2014 in Devon Kennard.
The team’s Most Inspiration Player graduated as a fifth year senior and was selected in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the New York Giants.
But returning this season is a host of talent at the position who received valuable playing experience a season ago when the injury bug hit.
“We have a lot of athleticism on the edge here,” said USC coach Steve Sarkisian. “There is experience and talent. I’m looking forward to watching this unit develop.”
The USC defense will be learning its third defensive scheme in three years with the addition of first-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. Coaches refer to the new system as a “multiple-front”.
Key losses: Morgan Breslin (Graduation), Devon Kennard (Graduation)
Losses: Kevin Greene (Graduation), Marquis Simmons (Graduation)
Key returners: J.R. Tavai (Sr.), Scott Starr (RS Soph.), Jabari Ruffin (RS Soph.), Quinton Powell (Soph.)
Returners: Charles Burks (RS Jr.)
Newcomers: Uchenna Nwosu (Fr.), Malik Dorton (Fr.), Don Hill (Fr.)
2013 Review: A blessing in disguise is exactly what Devon Kennard’s senior year torn pectoral muscle injury turned out to be in 2012. Kennard returned to USC in 2013 as a redshirt senior and became a major beneficiary of new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 scheme, which allowed Kennard to rush off the edge.
Kennard finished his fifth season at USC fifth on the team with 60 total tackles and a team leading nine sacks.
Opposite Kennard on the line was Morgan Breslin. Breslin established himself as one of the top defensive ends in the country in 2012 as a junior college transfer. He racked up 62 tackles including 19.5 for for a loss. However, in 2013 his productivity plummeted due to nagging injuries.
The senior outside linebacker in Pendergasts’s scheme only played in five games, finishing the season with 15 tackles and 4.5 sacks.
In Breslin’s absence it was junior JR Tavai who stepped in, and stepped up, for the Trojans. In 12 games played Tavai made 56 tackles and collected 3.5 sacks, while showing steady improvement with each game. In four contests, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and UCLA, Tavai made six or more tackles.
Jabari Ruffin (who started the season opener at Hawaii) and Scott Starr also saw meaningful playing time at the position in 2013.
2014 Outlook: This season, the Trojans lose their three year starter in Kennard, along with Breslin.
But the return of Tavai will provide stability at the position. Tavai was greatly challenged in the Trojans 15 spring practices by redshirt sophomore Scott Starr. Starr, finally healthy, said the game started coming together for him over the spring and there’s now room for him to make a big impact with the departure of Kennard and Breslin.
Tavai and Starr are listed as co-starters on the preseason depth chart at rush end.
Also returning, Ruffin and Quinton Powell who are listed as co-starters on the depth chart at strong outside linebacker.
Both enter the season with over 20 career tackles as Trojan.
Outside linebacker looks to be one of the strongest positions on the Trojans roster this season if Tavai, Starr, Ruffin and Powell are able to maintain their health.
Also, keep an eye on Charles Burks this fall as he tries to emerge as a redshirt junior after serving in a backup role the last two seasons.
The Trojans welcome three freshmen to the position group this fall including Uchenna Nwosu, Malik Dorton and Don Hill.
Hill was a midyear enrollee, but was unable to participate in spring practices as he continued to recover from an Achilles injury suffered in high school.
All three freshmen could be potential redshirt candidates.