Spring Preview: Unproven D-line must step up

A new defensive coordinator, new position coach and almost new cast of characters makes the guys up front the place to watch this spring.

From a first-year coach down to almost every one of the players, USC’s defensive line is the place of the great unknown going into 2016.

More than the who, there’s the how and the what as defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast figures out who goes where and what do they do with them in his 5-2 defense that has all sorts of fronts and combinations.

That’s why we’ll list the outside linebackers here as Clancy lines up the guys he calls Predator at the line of scrimmage the way he did Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard.

Along with D-pine coach Kenechi Udeze, the Trojan alum slidng over from the strength and conditioning staff after years of hoping to be able to do that, Clancy must find his guys and get them going with little experience up front after the loss of five senior defensive linemen who and the questions surrounding a fifth, whose presence on the squad has been a question throughout the winter.

Although if there are lots of questions about an unproven unit, former USC All-American and first-round NFL draft pick BKU, after beating leukemia, might be the least of the unknowns. His drive and toughness came through in the Holiday Bowl when he stepped in for December to take over the defensive front with an immediate impact.

But BKU had a veteran bunch then. Of the 56 starts across the front for D-linemen and an OLB on the line of scrimmage, seniors took 53 of those. Among the top four returnees, they made just 73 tackles.

But that was in a defense that mostly laid in wait with very little go-get-‘em as much as the players wanted to play that way. With the aggressive Pendergast and Udeze, that will change. And it’s not like there’s no familiarity here. Bigelow, Jabari Ruffin and Quinton Powell were on that 2013 depth chart for Clancy,

How quickly that happens with the physical challenges presented by Alabama in Game 1 and Stanford in Game 3 is the unanswered question. Who can possibly know?

But spring should help us get some sense of the who and how after the loss of All-Pac-12 Antwaun Woods along with fellow seniors Delvon Simmons, Claude Pelon, Greg Townsend Jr., Cody Temple and possibly Scott Felix.

The highest-rated D-lineman on our list of players who must come through is sophomore Noah Jefferson, ranked No. 8 in our January list of Trojans who must come through in 2016: Here’s what we said of Noah, who could be at the nose as a really tall plugger in he middle or move outside: “USC needs a D-line guy -- a number of them really -- to step up here. At 6-foot-6 and 330 pounds, Noah did that as the lone non-senior to break through and earn a start alongside the four seniors when USC went with four D-line guys in the Holiday Bowl. For a team that plays Alabama and Stanford in two of its next three games, Noah, who had a non-senior D-line team-high 23 tackles last fall, better not be the only young gun who steps up.”

Close behind is our No. 14 player, Serra alum Rasheem Green: “He overcame that lingering knee injury from high school to be a regular contributor here as an athletic 6-5, 285-pound freshman with a 31-yard scoop-and-score TD to his credit. Now the Serra alum, who looks like he can play the Leonard Williams spot at a high level some day and will get the chance to show it.

Next on our list is Porter Gustin, although you could pair him with Osa Masina, who looks like he’ll get a shot out on the edge as well. Here’s what we said about them as our No. 16-17 ranked guys: “Not sure where they're going to be in the reconfigured 3-4/5-2 defense but they better be somewhere. Too much talent. Too much ability. And last fall, maybe too much freshman. No more of that for 2016. Get them up to speed and in the game and doing things that their abilities will allow them to do to change games USC's ways against the likes of the Stanfords and the Oregons. This is why you recruit these guys.

We didn’t rank the incoming freshmen then but Serra’s Oluwole Betiku appears to have too much going for him at either OLB with his speed and athleticism or at DE with his strength and aggressiveness, as difficult as it is for a true freshman to have immediate impact up front.

Of Kenny Bigelow, we said: “This is his time to step up and be the veteran leader on the defensive front for the redshirt junior whose career to this point has been a combination of potential and injury. But he's the man now. Trojans really need a veteran here. Nowhere else to look.”

We have the redshirt freshman pair of Jacob Daniel and Kevin Scott together t Nos. 49-50, and this is what we said: “If you sense a pattern here, you're right. The pair offer USC 12 feet, nine inches and 640 pounds of sophomore defensive tackles. And with the numbers up front on defense, they will get their chance. Daniel posted tackles in three of the first four games, They'll get the chance to up those in 2016.

Malik Dorton made himself noticed at practice. We said this about him: “At 275 pounds, he's a little undersized to play with his hand on the ground inside but with the lack of numbers up front, and with the way he showed up on the practice field in the fall, the tough and quick Malik will have a chance to matter here.”

Being able to play like a little-bit larger J.R. Tavai should help Christian Rector of whom we said: “The redshirt freshman from Loyola showed up big at times on the Scout team and we'll have to see where the 6-5, 260-pounder ends up size wise as a probable defensive end with his hand on the ground. Looks like he has the skill set.”

Two other players who could see action on the edge are senior Jabari Ruffin and sophomore Don Hill. Here’s what we said of Jabari: “This is it for the 6-foot-3, 245-pound senior outside linebacker from Downey who recorded tackles in six games as a backup and special teamer with no starts. He's at one of USC's deepest, most-talented positions so he'll have to step up his playmaking ability.

Of Hill, who we had at No. 54, we said: “After missing his first year with an Achilles tear, the redshirt sophomore outside linebacker/DE from Boise, at 6-3 and 245 pounds, found his way to the field, recording four tackles the final two games. If that improvement keeps on keeping on, he can have a spot for himself on the depth chart out there next fall.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN/OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

Oluwole Betiku, Fr., DE/OLB

Kenny Bigelow Jr., So., DT?DE

Jacob Daniel, So., DT

Malik Dorton, So., DT/DE

Rasheem Green, So., DE

Porter Gustin, So., OLB

Don Hill, So., DE/OLB

Noah Jefferson, So., DT

Osa Masina, So., OLB

Uchenna Nwosu, Jr., OLB

Quinton Powell, So., OLB

Christian Rector, RFr., DE

Jabari Ruffin, Sr., OLB

Kevin Scott, RFr., DE-DT

Sixth in a series of fall position previews for the 2015 Trojans. Next: Linebackers.

Here's the spring practice info:

*** The dates of USC’s 2016 spring football practices are: March 8-10-12-22-24-26-29-31-April 2-5-7-9-12-14-16.

*** Spring practice times: Tuesday and Thursday practices at 3:30 p.m., Saturday practices at 10 a.m. (except the April 16 Spring Game at 3 p.m.). All practices will be held on Howard Jones Field/Brian Kennedy Field on campus, except for two practices at the Coliseum (March 26 and the April 16 Spring Game).

*** All of USC spring practices will be open to the public for viewing from a designated area on the east side of Howard Jones Field (north of Goux’s Gate) or from the south stands at the Coliseum.

. *** USC's Spring Game will be Saturday, April 16, at 3 p.m. in the Coliseum. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door (or online on USCTrojans.com).

*** USC's Pro Day is March 23 at 10 a.m. on Loker Stadium’s Cromwell Field. It is closed to the public.

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

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