USC finished last season tied for ninth in the nation with 38 sacks, but that was an entire defensive line ago. The full unit is gone. The Trojans lost five defensive linemen to graduation and Scott Felix, who started 11 games at rush end, was suspended for the upcoming season.
That put the emphasis on former five-star prospects like Kenny Bigelow and Rasheem Green on the defensive line and Porter Gustin coming off the edge to step forward and take on more impactful roles. But during a spring practice, Bigelow went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, leaving Malik Dorton as the only hand-on-the-ground defensive linemen with at least two years experience.
Dorton got some playing time as a redshirt freshman last year in USC’s non-conference tune ups in the first two games, but didn’t play after that, getting 33 total snaps for the season. Despite the inexperience, he was one of the spring standouts. He has bulked up to 280 pounds after playing at 235 in high school and is in the running for one of the starting spots alongside Green and Gustin on the front line.
The Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco product has been building on his strong spring by continuing to push himself.
“The summer is going well so far,” Dorton said. “I just come out here every day working hard, keeping that goal [of starting] in mind everyday.”
A point of emphasis under new defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze, Dorton has really focused on the fine details of the position from hand placement to eye discipline.
“Just fundamentals,” Dorton said when asked what he’s been working on most during the summer. “Really be sound and technical with my technique. I feel like if I do that everything else will take care of itself.
“We do extra work every day after lifting as a d-line with Coach Torre [Becton]. That's really been the emphasis -- just fundamentals until we are able to really get the pads on.”
Even though Bigelow has transitioned to the unofficial title of ‘Coach Kenny,’ according to Clay Helton, Bigelow’s injury leaves a void in leadership on the field for the defensive line unit. Rather than Dorton or someone else trying to step in just to falsely claim to have a single leader, the entire unit has been relying on one another.
“We're out there every day working hard pushing each other. We all push each other, so it's not one single guy that is out there that we just look at as a leader. We all like to lead by example.”
The Trojans will eventually have an older, experienced defensive lineman to turn to when Utah transfer Stevie Tu'ikolovatu officially joins the roster as a blueshirt scholarship recipient after the first day of fall camp.
Tu’ikolovatu has attended a handful of USC’s summer player-run practices and has already made a strong impression on his to-be teammates.
“He's a big, strong guy. When we go out there and hit the sleds, he's pretty powerful,” Dorton said. “I’m glad that we can get a guy like him in and he can come out to help us. He's an older guy. He has a lot of experience, so we're also going to learn some things from him. He's a big, strong guy. I'm just looking forward to working with him this camp.”
Without a true leader, it might be easy for the position group to take a lax approach to the summer, but a date with defending national champion Alabama and their consistent rushing attack that has produced multiple Heisman Trophy winners under Nick Saban has kept the defensive linemen locked in. They know that they will be under the microscope. A strong performance would open a lot of eyes.
“It’s definitely a little motivation because they're one of the best teams.”