USC assistant coach Chris Wilson isn’t satisfied with his defensive line unit’s play.
“Well we’re never satisfied. We’ve got so much room for improvement in every facet — run game, pass game, play recognition.”
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t happy with their play or that the defensive line unit has been shoddy. The defense as a whole has only two sacks, but has recorded 12 tackles for loss and has been applying pressure on opposing quarterbacks. It hasn’t materialized in the form of sacks yet, but the Trojans’ defensive front has been getting into the backfield and forcing quarterbacks to get rid of the ball early and often.
Against Idaho, an offense predicated on quick throws and screen passes to help a talent-starved offensive line, USC still managed to get more than 15 quarterback pressures, hitting the quarterbacks and forcing them to move out of the pocket often if an initial read wasn’t open.
“Last week, we hit the quarterback 10 times,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “We hit him the week before nine or 10 times, so we’re hitting him. We need to get there a count sooner and when we have chances to get him to the ground then we’ve got to finish him.”
For Wilcox, it’s taking that next step with adjustments on small details that could push the front seven to the next level.
“We’ve got to make him hold the ball long enough to get that extra count to get here. Those small little details come up so big.
“We’ve affected the quarterback. We need to get more sacks, I agree 100 percent. That’s what we’re always going to work towards, but we have affected him. We just need to go get him down on the ground.”
The work starts up front with the big guys in the trenches where Wilson says the group is improving every day and with every game. USC has five redshirt seniors that lead the way, but experience levels are highly varied. While Antwaun Woods and Delvon Simmons have been significant contributors since their freshman year, Greg Townsend Jr. and Cody Temple are getting their first significant opportunities and Claude Pelon is only in his second season at USC after transferring from Mesa (Ariz.) Community College.
Woods is the undisputed leader of the unit and a captain on the defensive side of the ball. Routinely noted for his hard work, Woods is often the unsung hero in the middle of the line taking on two blockers and helping to free a teammate to make a play. Still, he has collected six tackles and was credited for a quarterback hit against Arkansas State that led to a Chris Hawkins interception.
“He’s a guy who really is the heartbeat of our front,” Wilson said. “Being a nose guard you don’t always get a lot of recognition, unless there’s a big run that creases you. But he’s been consistent getting guys lined up, putting us in the right situation, helping us get prepared for practice. He’s a big part of who we are.”
A local Los Angeles (Calif.) Taft product, Woods has come back even stronger this season after missing the Holiday Bowl last season when he tore his pectoral muscle while trying to take on a double team. It was tough at first for him to fully buy into the rehab process, but he said the injury has only fueled him to work harder.
“When you’re off with a big injury like that, you start to love the game, so I don’t take no days for granted. I just come out here and just love the game and give it one day at a time.”
While he was unable to go through full workouts in the spring and the summer, Woods spent his time helping the other linemen, teaching up the younger guys, including a highly touted freshman class that arrived that gave the defensive line something it has been missing since the NCAA levied sanctions against the Trojans — depth.
“I’ve never seen 16 d-lineman in my five years of being here. So this is great seeing all the bodies and getting a chance to see everybody develop.”
Since returning to full strength, Woods leadership role has shifted to a lead-by-example case. He’s found that it holds him more accountable and forces him to work his hardest.
“Everybody is looking up to you and everybody is watching you. You have to make sure your self is right before you try to tell others what to do and try to teach them.”
But with the group of redshirt seniors, Woods isn’t the only guy the young players can look up to.
“Delvon is stepping up as a senior. Getting better at certain techniques and just being a better senior and taking his game to the next level. It’s good to have someone like that that’s going to work hard next to you.”
Simmons put in a lot of work in the offseason to make himself a more complete player rather than just a space eater in the run game opposite of Leonard Williams. He and Woods spent considerable time working with boxing bags in the training facility to improve their hand placement and initial punch in pass rush.
Another emphasis for Simmons was improving his flexibility after he said he was “a little stiff” last year.
“It’ll help me be able to bend when I’m trying to bend around those tight corners. Flexibility is the key to everything I feel. It will help me in all aspects of my game with stopping the run and pass rushing.”
Behind Simmons and Woods are Pelon and Temple. Pelon looked like the likely frontrunner for a starting spot at defensive end, but underwent microscopic knee surgery during training camp and just returned last week. He immediately made an impact, getting a couple of pressures, a quarterback hit and blocking his second career kick.
“I feel good to be back,” Pelon said after the game. “I’m glad to be out there with my brothers fighting each and every day. I’m ready to eat.”
When Pelon went down with his knee injury, Greg Townsend Jr. stepped in and took over the starting defensive end role and currently leads the defensive linemen with seven tackles. Pelon’s knee injury also opened up extra opportunities in the two-deep. Kenny Bigelow and Malik Dorton both saw their first Trojan action against Arkansas State. Bigelow, who hadn’t played since 2011, recorded his first career sack and was a disruptive force in the backfield.
The biggest difference from years past is that the Trojans can actually go beyond just a two-deep. In the season opener, Wilson had the ability to go to a third-string line that consisted of a trio of talented freshmen — Rasheem Green, Jacob Daniel and Noah Jefferson. All three have played between 35 and 38 combined snaps in the first two games.
“When your third group is used to playing in the first quarter/second quarter regardless of the situation, it breeds confidence and let’s you know that they can play and win football games.”
Still working his way back from knee surgery that ended his senior year of high school, Green only became a full participant at the end of training camp leading up to the season, but since then he has steadily worked his way up the depth chart.
Against Idaho, he worked with the second-team unit on the opposite end of Pelon and in both games, Green has been on the field during the late-game garbage time trying to catch up on his number of reps, something Wilson says they are cognizant of.
“You see him flash and you see his talent level. You see him needing a lot more reps in the series just to be more consistent. I just think the more he practices and the more he plays, he can be a really, really good football player for us.”
“We had planned to get all those guys more reps if the game went that direction. Obviously, we got a chance to execute early and make some plays, which allowed a lot of guys to get some experience. There’s no finished products. Everyday we’re playing a lot of guys, getting a lot of guys reps and the more we play, hopefully the better we improve.”
The more players with experience, the more options Wilson will have going forward. That’s part of the reason why he still won’t commit to a set rotation. Instead, he said he prefers to use different guys in different situations that may highlight their skill set and help them be beneficial to the team.
“You just take whatever you have in your toolbox to win the game. We’re playing guys in multiple situations based off the style of play we’re going to get Saturday,” Wilson said. “We’ll have some personnels that are set up for certain things. Everybody has found a role and hopefully we can master it by the time Saturday comes.”
With Stanford coming to town, the Trojans’ ability to establish a sturdy wall against the run game and to provide initial pressure on quarterback Kevin Hogan gets spotlighted even more. The Cardinal want to force feed the run if possible and then give Hogan play-action opportunities. How well the defensive front plays could very well determine the game.
Last season, USC defeated Stanford, 13-10, despite the Cardinal getting inside the Trojans’ 35-yard line on all nine of its drives. It was the ultimate bend-but-don’t-break example. But Stanford returns four seniors on the offensive line and a fourth-year starter at quarterback, who are looking for revenge after USC has won the last two meetings.
In order to negate Stanford’s physical ground-and-pound offense, USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said his team has to do a good job on the first two downs and force the Cardinal into third-and-long situations rather than giving it opportunities to use the entire playbook.
“It's really critical for our defensive front to win on first down and to force them/make them live in second-and-8, 9 and 10s. Now the game swings back in our favor and we can make them a little bit more one-dimensional. First down wins for our defensive front is going to be big.”
Winning the early downs will allow USC to open up the defensive playbook and try to attack Hogan with some different looks.
“You always want to make the quarterback uncomfortable,” Sarkisian said. “But I think it's really important with Kevin because when he gets comfortable and when he gets hot...he can get hot.”
As he goes, so goes the Cardinal. According to ESPN, in wins, Hogan has thrown for 48 touchdowns to 15 interceptions, completed 67.3 percent of his passes with 9.0 yards per attempt for a total QBR of 82.9, but when Hogan struggles, so does Stanford. Hogan has just three touchdowns and seven interceptions in losses. His completion percentage dips to 58.6 and only 6.3 yards per attempt for a QBR of 54.0.
“We want to try to make him as uncomfortable as possible whether it's physically or mentally,” Sarkisian said. “We need to be really sticky on the receivers so that the windows are tight and we've got to get in his face ultimately. Anybody can throw when you're standing there and you've got a nice, clean pocket, so we need to make that pocket collapse.”
Last year, Hogan had two critical fumbles caused by pressure from the defensive front and he still has yet to throw for a touchdown against USC. In order to continue that trend, USC is going to have to be disruptive up front and pressure Hogan.
Unlike the past, the Trojans now have the depth to be able to send wave after wave into the game. Guys like Antwaun Woods don’t have to worry about playing 80 snaps in a game like he did at Arizona last season. Players don’t have to conserve energy because there are fresh guys behind them that are ready to sprint onto the field and take their place for a couple of plays.
It won’t be Leonard Williams having a monster game on a bum ankle or J.R. Tavai coming off the edge to cause the game-clinching fumble. Someone else is going to have to step up and get into the backfield and hopefully sack Hogan.
A couple sacks and a win might go a long way in providing USC’s defensive line coach some satisfaction.