Answering No. 1 SC question going into summer

The numbers and names say no but we say the D-front has a chance to actually be, or at least play, better next fall despite the loss of the nation's No. 1 defensive talent.

Other than "What do you really think -- how good can this USC team be?" it's the No. 1 question we get. Or the top doubt or hesitation or worry about this USC team heading into the fall.

And it basically comes down to this: For a team that was OK, but not much more than that across the front seven last season, and then loses the nation's No. 1 defender in Leonard Williams along with USC's second-all-time leading tackler in middle linebacker Hayes Pullard and timely edge rusher J.R. Tavai, how can it possibly be good enough to win the Pac-12 and get to the College Football Playoffs that some say the Trojans should be able to manage?

After all, didn't Steve Sarkisian himself say this was the No. 1 concern coming out of spring, especially the D-line part of the mix?

He did. And we're not saying he shouldn't have gone there although from our perspective, the ability to power run the football in situations where USC absolutely needs first-down yards and a goal-line power game are equally important.

But let's go with the D-line part of that front seven question. It's basically untested. Lots of guys coming off injuries. They've been here and not been all that productive. Some of the hope here is just that. And some of these guys are merely freshmen. How does this get better?

And since the case can be -- and has been -- made for how it doesn't get better, we'll make the case here for how it does -- or at least how it could.

Because it could. No really. In fact, it could be better than last year's front seven, as counterintuitive as that might seem.

The numbers themselves allow plenty of room for improvement. USC was in the bottom 20 in the nation allowing 302 first downs. Too many times the standaround Trojans just couldn't get off the field.

The 133.4 rushing yards a game USC allowed was the third-highest since 2002. The 407.9 yards a game allowed was the highest in history and the 25.2 points per game given up was the second-highest since 2001. We think all of those get better. They have to.

Here's why. Start with seniority. Having an overabundance of seniors can be a negative down the road if you don't have a super recruiting class but that seems to have been addressed with the five-man group of Jacob Daniel, Rasheem Green, Noah Jefferson, Christian Rector and Kevin Scott USC has coming in.

And while one or two of them might make it to the field this year, and we have to think that will happen, the obvious thought is to have this bunch ready for the 2016 opener against Alabama.

Because we really do believe this will be a season where five seniors who have yet to put it together and a redshirt sophomore, Kenny Bigelow, who likewise has yet to reach the promise of his prep days as a top prospect, do just that.

But not as individuals. Not BLW-like. But as a group. Together. The freshmen bring talent, big bodies, numbers, depth for a rotation that can play fast and most importantly, lots of competition.

Now the focus here is on the front line part of the front seven equation. The backers, who are a big part of this, should clearly be a step up -- deeper, faster, bigger and flying around for a change thanks to a secondary that can play man with confidence allowing them to do just that.

But that's for another day. The point here is -- it all goes together. Having bigger, rangier linebackers like senior Lamar Dawson and freshman Cameron Smith and sophomore Olajuwon Tucker changes the look and the game. They can get into the passing lanes -- and the opponents' backfield.

But they're hardly alone. Returning starter Anthony Sarao should be back and healthy after foot surgery. Michael Hutchings returns. Add in the uber-talented freshman trio of Porter Gustin, John Houston Jr. and Osa Masina and that's a loaded linebacker corps.

And we have yet to mention an unleashed Su'a Cravens, who will be allowed to freelance ala Troy Polamalu and be a disruptive influence along with his backup Quinton Powell.

Which then gets us to a rehabbing Jabari Ruffin, a returning Scott Felix and an untested Don Hill at the RUSH end/OLB spot. Playing faster and flying around has to help this position contribute more than it did last fall. But they have a lot to prove here.

The good news is that with these numbers, they can do it every day in practice. That didn't happen in the spring and not all that much last fall. But there will be eight big bodies available in August who were not on the field in the spring. That changes everything.

So with that out of the way, it comes down to Delvon Simmons, Antwaun Woods, Cody Temple, Claude Pelon, Greg Townsend Jr., Malik Dorton and Bigelow. Maybe a still-growing Dorton is a year away.

But for the other six, it's pretty much do-or-die time. All of them have to think they're within shouting distance of an NFL career. Sure, they have the physical numbers to play at the next level if not the film or the production numbers.

Bigelow will have more time but after two years of essentially no productivity as a Trojan, this has to be his time to step up after rehabbing ACL surgery. No one will be surprised if he does. But nothing he's done is proof he can despite a trimmed-down 285-pound physique that looks like he should be able to. His attitude through rehab has been great.

That leaves the five seniors. Temple should absolutely push Woods at the nose after getting his chance, and staying healthy while Woods rehabbed his torn pec in the spring, encourages us about this spot. You need two here. Both think there could be a place for them at the next level. And with no Leonard beside them, it's time to step up. Neither will surprise us if they do. And while Antwaun is relatively known, although without great impact, Cody's playmaking ability for the little he's played is encouraging.

That leaves the final three -- Simmons, Pelon and Townsend. There is raw, and complementary, talent here. And decent experience. But will they play with the motor that BLW showed them they must? Can Townsend stay healthy? Will having the additional numbers competing for playing time help as well? And will those numbers let them go all out without worrying about finishing games?

We think the answer to all those questions could be yes. And if it is, this D-line group could be a step up this season.

But not just for what they do, but what they're asked to do and how they practice allowing defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to turn them loose with a confidence he clearly did not have in a hesitant first season last fall. That kind of confidence, in practice and on the field at the end of games, changes everything.

You have to know -- not just hope -- you can get the call right and your players will make the plays when it counts. This all works together. From coach to player, from player to coach and from the D-line to the linebackers to the secondary, it has to all be there.

What we saw this spring, despite the absence of so many of the players who will be counted on in the fall, says this team has a chance to do that.

But one thing we can say for certain: This won't be about what we say but what they do.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.


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