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It's wait-until-August for USC's Trojans to step up on the defensive line

No way to know how the Trojans defensive line, thin and young and with little experience, is going to play out this fall with players like Kevin Scott, above, here with Jabari Ruffin and maybe Chuma Edoga (No. 70), getting a chance to step up.

It’s the one missing element in an encouraging summer of workouts showcasing USC’s explosive talent at the skill positions.

There’s the deep and fast wide receiver group, the trio of tight ends who can play, the four-deep running backs who can run, the two quarterbacks capable of starting and the deepest offensive line in years. It’s a good look.

And then you have the back six – or eight depending on how you classify the edge guys – on defense. There are more athletes than USC has had in years. Guys who can run and play man and get to the other side of the line of scrimmage in Clancy Pendergast’s attacking, forcing defense.

We can see all of that twice a week. There’s a lot of flying around out there.

What we can’t see, can’t know and won’t know is the state of the defensive front, as has been said over and over again. Whether you’re talking two, three, four or five guys, however you want to call it, we just don’t know where this is going to go.

If you consider the two defensive ends in the nickel package as outside linebackers, it’s just two down linemen. Or three in Clancy’s standard 5-2. Or if you count the edge guys as D-linemen, then it’s four or five.

We’re talking just about the down guys here. The outside, with Porter Gustin, Jabari Ruffin, Osa Masina, Don Hill, John Houston, Christian Rector and freshmen Oluwole Betiku and Connor Murphy, is not an issue in our minds. We can have an idea with what they’re going to do this fall by what they do this summer.

What they may not have in game experience, they make up for in size and athleticism. Getting them into the right scheme is probably all you need here.

But then we get back to the group that’s not really here yet. And won’t be here until August when the pads go on – if it is then. Which of course is the unanswerable summer question.

Take a look back at the spring media guide and six of the first eight names listed in the defensive line section will be missing in August – with Kenny Bigelow’s injury and Scott Felix’ suspension not part of the plan that acknowledged the loss to graduation of Antwaun Woods, Delvon Simmons, Greg Townsend Jr. and Claude Pelon. .

The two down linemen returnees – sophomores Rasheem Green and Noah Jefferson – each played in all 14 games. Between them they recorded 42 tackles. Not bad. Each of them could be a star, not just a starter. And there were flashes of that last fall.

In hindsight at the way 2015 turned out, it would have been better for them to have gotten more plays than they did although playing that two-gap technique would then have been something for both to unlearn even more than they have already.

Junior Malik Dorton, a former linebacker up to 280 pounds and with that low center of gravity and quick-twitch start, stepped up big-time in the spring. Maybe the biggest mover on the entire team -- an unexpected bright spot to compensate for the losses of Bigelow and Felix. And a tribute to the attacking scheme.

Sophomore Jacob Daniel played in three games. He’ll be joined by a leaner Kevin Scott and a bigger, thicker Liam Jimmons. And for additional help, there’s JC transfer Josh Fatu, from Long Beach CC, who will have to play right away. We’ll see him next week when the newcomers get here.

But how all this plays out for this group against power-running Alabama and Stanford as they try to ram the ball right down their throats in two of the first three games is the question that won’t go away. There’s just no way to begin to guess how that will go.

We’ll say this, however. It will go better than last year’s two-gap scheme that just begged for USC’s sitting-duck down linemen to get double-teamed and overwhelmed by the likes of a Stanford offensive front again and again and again.

There is a collective quickness, with plenty of size, here that could give these guys a chance.

But making it more difficult to answer is the fact that the position with the least experience and the fewest numbers is also the position coached by the least experienced member of the staff – rookie Kenechi Udeze, who also may have the staff’s biggest recruiting challenge. D-line prospects aren’t like quarterbacks and wide receivers in California. Kenechi is also a first-time recruiter.

Which is part of why we haven’t seen him this summer at the conditioning workouts. He’s out and about the country getting after it. But when you come to one of these summer sessions, you realize that the youngest, fewest, least-experienced group here has only a remarkably fast-recovering Bigelow to look up to. This won’t be easy.

And knowing that the effort to bring in help for Kenechi, with D-line guru Pete Jenkins consulting in the spring, didn’t go well is cause for concern.

So is the back and forth of an O-linemen or two or three – Chuma Edoga, Jordan Simmons or one of the four centers. Whoever it is, if it happens, it won’t come easily.

The way the offensive line, under possibly the most qualified, experienced O-line coach in the country in Neil Callaway with a Zach Banner calling the shots in the player-run practices, looks so ready to get it done may be making this look a little more difficult than it is already for the guys on defense.

But you can’t help but notice it. By definition, the D-line guys are the forgotten folks in what were once called summer throwing sessions. Often in summers past, they didn’t bother to come. There was nothing for them to do with little full-team 11-on-11 work.

This summer there is. Lots to do. Lots of 11-on-11.

And yet we still don’t – and can’t – know how this is going. Or how it’s going to go.

Stay tuned.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at

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