Fall position group preview: D-line

Without Leonard Williams, can this much deeper, senior-led front be more productive in a more aggressive USC defense?

They are the USC position group most under the gun -- and with five seniors, they know that for sure. And they'll be going to battle without the nation's No. 1 defensive lineman -- Leonard Williams.

Can't possibly perform better, right? "Wrong," these seniors say. They will be. Just watch.

We're going to attack," returning nose tackle Antwaun Woods says as the 6-foot-1, 315-pounder returns from six months of rehab for a torn pec."

"This is my last shot," his backup Cody Temple (6-2, 300) says, all healed up from an assortment of career injuries to his feet, ankle and knee. "I'm going to make the most of it."

That seems to square with the way Steve Sarkisian says he wants his defense, in Year 2, to perform.

“We laid down a solid defensive foundation last year, and now we must build on it and improve,” Sark says. “We want to play with passion on every play and come with a bully mentality. We have the pieces in place and the scheme to have a successful, stingy defense.”

It's that bully mentality these guys are working on. Sure, they have the video of the UCLA and Boston College games rerunning through their heads.

And there's no good answer to how a USC team that was the only one in the nation not to allow a first drive score, that was Top 20 in red zone and third-down-conversion defense, that held Arizona and Nebraska and Arizona to more than 100 yards under their rushing average, still managed to give up a highest-ever 407.9 yards a game and 25.2 points, second-most since 2001, with a rushing yards allowed of 133.4, third-highest in the last 13 seasons, and a bottom-20 302 first downs allowed.

Definitely not the USC way. Not for good USC teams, any way. It's been a topic of conversation when the D-line guys -- all 14 of them -- get together on a knee in summer workouts.

And that number -- 14 -- is a big part of this. USC hasn't seen that kind of D-line depth in ages. And it's experienced depth. To seniors Woods and Temple, add three more non-nose tackles. Delvon Simmons (6-5, 295), Claude Pelon (6-4, 300) and Greg Townsend Jr. (6-3, 275) who split up 15 starts among them in 2014.

For Simmons, the Texas Tech transfer, and Pelon, the onetime top JC D-lineman in the nation, it's now or never on the way to the next level. Should be a real motivator. They're both athletic enough, they can both make plays. But can they play every play? We'll see.

But the numbers of veterans up front don't stop with those five returning seniors. There's the untested, slim and trim redshirt sophomore Kenny Bigelow (6-3, 290), back from knee surgery and knowing it's time to show he's ready to live up to the potental awarded him coming out of high school.

Of real interest to USC fans is junior Jordan Simmons (6-4, 330), recently switched to the D-line after battling injuries the last couple of seasons. He gives USC the kind of athlete it hasn't had in the middle in a long time.

So there's already an answer to that lack of depth issue that last fall may have been the reason the Trojans couldn't stop a game-winning Utah drive at the wire or get to an Arizona State QB on the final two drives. It almost doesn't matter if it was or not. The coaches coached like it was. And their players played like it.

But the depth answers aren't finished yet and we're not into a stellar incoming freshman class. Redshirt freshman Malik Dorton (6-2, 275) may be a bit undersized but he acquitted himself well when he got the chance this spring. And walkons Joey Augello and Jeff Miller have always done just that. They're football players.

Now for the five freshmen. How many make it to the field? It's up to them. Rasheem Green (6-5, 285) might have led the way here but the Serra alum is still rehabbing his knee so it's hard to know.

Noah Jefferson (6-6, 330) and Jacob Daniel (6-4, 325) are humongous. Are they ready? Can't wait to find out. They might be. Neither look like freshmen.

Christian Rector (6-5, 260) may be a year away as could the late-arriving Kevin Scott (6-5, 315), who had to get through the NCAA Clearinghouse.

SARK SAYS: “We lost a generational player in Leonard, but we are thankful that this year’s defensive line has a nice mix of veterans and talented young players. There is lots of senior leadership, while at the same time the new players will be hungry to push for playing time.”

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

Joey Augello, Sr., DT

Kenny Bigelow Jr., RFr., DT

Jacob Daniel, In. Fr., DT

Malik Dorton, RFr., DE

Rasheem Green, In. Fr., DT-DE

Noah Jefferson, In. Fr., DT

Jeff Miller, Jr., DT

Claude Pelon, Sr., DE

Christian Rector, In. Fr., DE

Kevin Scott, In. Fr., DE-DT

Delvon Simmons, Sr., DT

Cody Temple, Sr., DT

Greg Townsend Jr., Sr., DE

Antwaun Woods, Sr., DT

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