There's more than one great unknown for this USC defense.
Start with the fact that only one of the front seven returns and that player, freshman All-American MLB Cameron Smith, is coming off knee surgery. And three of the four defensive coaches are relative newbies -- to their position or to the challenges of getting it done against opponents the level of Alabama and Stanford.
Which gets us to coordinator Clancy Pendergast, whose philosophy of playing on the other side or the line of scrimmage might be just what the doctor ordered for an athletic but relatively young group of defenders everywhere but in a big-name secondary that returns all four starters but will have to learn a new way to play.
The good news here is that another nine Trojans have started in their careers and all of them will be contending for a chance to get there again including a trio of DB's, three defensive ends, two inside linebackers and a D-lineman. So there's a decent amount of experience to build on despite the relative youth here.
But the picture of what this team brings forward from last season is a contradictory one. The USC defense returns three of its top four tacklers, for starters, along with the leaders in interceptions, deflections and fumble recoveries, the USC Media Guide informs us. That's a USC team that despite giving up 400.8 yards a game, second most ever, was third nationally with five defensive TD, 11th in turnover margin (0.8), 18th in fourth down conversion defense (.381) and 21st in sacks (2.6) despite barely blitzing. But USC also allowed 149.3 rushing yards, the highest total since 2002, and 25.7 points, the second highest since 2001.
Some good news, some not so good news for Clancy's aggressive 5-2 defense that can line up in a 3-4 or a 4-3 and when he was here in 2013, held USC opponents to fewer than 300 yards seven times in 14 games and Top 20 finishes nationally in total defense, pass efficiency defense and scoring defense.
Clay's comments: “After seeing how effective the 5-2 defense was here in 2013 under Clancy, I’m excited to see it in action with the current personnel we have. It’s an aggressive, attacking system and I believe it’s the perfect fit for us. We want to stop the run and get to the quarterback and create turnovers.”
We'll look at the defensive positions the way USC does, combining the front line tackles -- either two or three -- with the outside linebackers now considered defensive ends who can rush, play the run or drop into coverage. Whatever you call them, they're all gone -- the starters that is -- from 2015. Gone are All-Pac-12 tackle Antwaun Woods and four of his buds up front as well as two-time All-Pac-12 outside linebacker Su'a Cravens. Gone also is DE Scott Felix, who tested positive for an over-the-counter supplement banned by the NCAA and will be limited to helping this team as a Scout team defender.
But the cupboard is not bare. A case can be made that there's more raw talent on this team than last starting with sophomore tackles Rasheem Green (6-5, 280) and Noah Jefferson (6-5, 315), who showed flashes as freshmen. Kenny Bigelow may be gone after spring knee surgery but offensive starter Khaliel Rodgers (6-3, 310) has switched to defense and Utah's 25-year-old Stevie Tu'ikolovatu (6-3, 330) will be awarded a blueshirt scholarship as a graduate transfer after the first practice Thursday. He may be as important a player here with his size, strength, experience and maturity.
Then there's former linebacker Malik Dorton (6-3, 280), the pleasant surprise of the spring, and another sophomore, Jacob Daniel (6-4, 310) along with redshirt freshman Kevin Scott (6-5, 300). Two newcomers at tackle are 6-5, 280-pound Liam Jimmons (Huntington Beach High), a spring enrollee, and 6-3, 290-pound junior transfer Josh Fatu (Long Beach City College), who was still finishing up coursework this summer.
With first-time coach Kenechi Udeze handling this group, it will be clearly a position to watch especially in the challenge of facing the Alabama and Stanford run games the first three weeks of the season.
Defensive end/outside linebacker: An interesting position, this hybrid DE/OLB spot for Clancy's defense with its Predator pass-rushing/pass/coverage possibilities on one side and more traditional defensive end/run defender/OLB on the other side. It will be interesting to see how this position, coached up by former running backs/special teams coach Johnny Nansen, plays out.
There are lots of candidates who can, and will, get on the field here and it's not absolutely certain what the pecking order will be other than 6-5, 260-pound sophomore Porter Gustin (25 tackles, seven for loss, 5.5 sacks) will be one of them.at Predator. Senior Jabari Ruffin (6-3, 240, 11 tackles and a forced fumble) and junior Uchenna Nwosu (6-3, 235, 31 tackles, 1.5 for loss) are definitely in the mix with 6-2, 240-pound Don Hill, after sitting out spring for a team rules violation, along with now-healthy redshirt freshmen John Houston (6-3, 220) and 6-5, 275-pound Christian Rector, a hybrid hybrid.
Two impressive, athletic freshmen add to the depth with on-field possibilities here. Nigeria native Oluwole Betiku Jr. (Serra High, Gardena), has been battling a foot problem this summer but the 6-3, 250-pounder showed great promise as a relative newcomer to football in the spring while 6-7, 260-pound Connor Murphy (Brophy Prep in Phoenix), has shown himself to be a good pupil of Gustin's at Predator this summer.
“The defensive line, especially in the interior, certainly is the youngest spot on our team, as we lost some quality veterans. It is imperative that we have a great fall camp not only to continue to develop our young players on the line but to get everyone comfortable with the 5-2 system.”
D-LINE/OUTSIDE LB/DE ROSTER
Matt Bayle, RFr., DE
Oluwole Betiku Jr., In. Fr., DE
Kenny Bigelow Jr., Jr., DT
Jacob Daniel, So., DT
Malik Dorton, So., DT
Josh Fatu, In. Jr., DT
Rasheem Green, So., DT
Porter Gustin, So., DE
Don Hill, So., DE
John Houston Jr., RFr., DE
Noah Jefferson, So., DT
Liam Jimmons, Fr., DT
Connor Murphy, In. Fr., DE
Uchenna Nwosu, Jr., DE
Christian Rector, RFr., DE
Jabari Ruffin, Sr., DE
Kevin Scott, RFr., DT
Two graduated regulars -- Anthony Sarao and Lamar Dawson -- are missing from the mix here but despite Anthony's 217 career tackles and Dawson's 168 tackles and 21 starts, the USC media guide says "the Trojans are in good shape here." We agree.
Sophomore Cameron Smith (6-2, 245), who would have been the first true freshman to lead USC in tackles since records were first kept in 1954, had 78 before a season-ending knee injury sidelined the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. How soon he's full-go after ACL surgery is the only question against a front-loaded schedule is the early season question for a position coached up by Clancy himself.
Three veterans with starting experience are in the mix. Reborn seniors Michael Hutchings (6-1, 220, 13 tackles in 2015) and special teams star Quinton Powell (6-2, 205, 12 tackles, one forced fumble), has moved in from the outside while junior Olajuwon Tucker (6-3, 230, 40 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 2.5 sack) showed up well in the spring. All have starting experience. But all eyes will be on the physically gifted 6-4, 242-pound Osa Masina (25 tackles, 1.5 for loss, one fumble recovery TD) at WILL playing next to classmate Smith.and beside fellow sophomore from Utah -- Gustin.
Junior Joel Foy (6-1, 220) and sophomore and former OLB, sophomore Grant Moore (6-0, 210) are two walkons who can play and add depth and will see the field as they did last fall. And finishing out the position is a talented 6-2, 215-pound Jordan Iosefa (St. Louis High in Honolulu), who has shown flashes in the summer.
Clay comments: “Inside linebacker is among the deepest and most talented positions on our team. We had some young players gain invaluable playing experience here last year and that should carry them forward into 2016.”
INSIDE LINEBACKER ROSTER
Joel Foy, Jr.
Michael Hutchings, Sr.
Jordan Iosefa, In. Fr.
Osa Masina, So.
Grant Moore, So.
Quinton Powell, Sr.
CAMERON SMITH, So.
Olajuwon Tucker, Jr.
Clancy's hand-picked secondary coach Ronnie Bradford may be new but he's greeted by an all-veteran starting cast and then some of high-ranked talent. Four starters return -- five if you count Leon McQuay -- which may be the way to do it for a defense that will end up going with more than four in the secondary against much of the Pac-12's wide-open offenses.
The four starters back start with Adoree' Jackson (5-11, 185), the three-way junior up for a number of postseason awards for his versatility, is coming off seven months of long jumping that saw him finish 10th in his quest to make the USA Olympic Team and a 2015 season that he termed as just "all right," not an improvement over his freshman year. His offensive and return stats last fall outshone his defensive ones with 27 receptions for 414 yards, a 15.3 average, with two TD and another two punt return TD against 35 tackles and just a single interception. How much will the increase in man-to-man coverage and improvements in his own technique increase those numbers? That is the question.
Sophomore Iman Marshall (6-1, 200) returns opposite Adoree' after a team-high three interceptions in 2015 when the freshman All-American recorded 67 tackles and nine deflections. Both starting safeties also return with junior Chris Hawkins (5-11, 185, 70 tackles, 1.5 for loss, two fumble recoveries, one for a TD) the vocal leader after recovering from offseason ankle surgery and hard-hitting John Plattenburg (5-11, 180, 34 tackles, 3.5 for loss, one sack, 2 interceptions) paired up again if they can fight off the young talent competing with them. The senior McQuay (6-1, 195, 18 tackles, 1.5 for loss, three deflections, one forced and one recovered fumble) looks like the candidate for the slot cover guy from his spring play. But he's not the only other safety with starting experience. Rangy hitter Marvel Tell (6-3, 190, 36 tackles, one for loss, four deflections) will find his way to the field.
It doesn't end there. Redshirt freshman safety Ykili Ross (6-0, 200) has been in the mix all summer after an injury-limited freshman season and postseason shoulder surgery. So has junior corner Jonathan Lockett (5-11, 180, 18 tackles), who brings multiple career starts with him and after a first-game suspension for a violation of team rules, Isaiah Langley (6-0, 170, 12 tackles, one deflection) will also see action.
Then there's the second big offense-to-defense switch for this team -- redshirt sophomore corner Ajene Harris (5-11, 190), a former wide receiver, who has had a terrific summer and will find his way to the field after coming back from hip surgery.
The secondary is another walkon-heavy spot with a half-dozen contributors here: Junior cornerbacks Kevin Carrasco, former wide receiver Yoofi Quansah and sophomore Jalen Jones join junior safety Matt Lopes (5-11, 195, 14 tackles, 1.5 for loss), a regular contributor until slowed by a foot injury, and speedy senior Deion Hart with sophomore Davonte Nunnery. Look for Lopes and Hart to figure in here.
Corner Jack Jones (5-11, 170), wearing No. 1, is the standout athletically in a four-man recruiting class of nothing but athletes, based on his summer play as the Long Beach Poly alum learns the college game with his classmates. But close behind and gaining is Florida freshman corner Keyshawn (Pie) Young (5-11, 175, Miami Senior HS) who shows more every day. Safety C.J. Pollard (6-1, 185, Serra High in Gardena), is the early enrollee son of an NFL Trojan while Florida safety Jamel Cook (6-3, 185, Miami Central High) has been limited by a foot fracture that would seem to make him a redshirt candidate here.
Clay comments: “I am very excited about the quality of our returning starters in the secondary. It is important, however, that we develop some depth and versatility here.”
DEFENSIVE BACKS ROSTER
Kevin Carrasco, Jr., CB
Jamel Cook, In. Fr., S
Ajene Harris, RSo
Deion Hart, Sr., S
CHRIS HAWKINS, Jr., S
ADOREE’ JACKSON, Jr., CB-WR-RET
Jack Jones, In. Fr., CB-WR
Jalen Jones, So, CB
Isaiah Langley, So., CB
Jonathan Lockett, Jr., CB
Matt Lopes, Jr., S
IMAN MARSHALL, So., CB
Leon McQuay III, Sr., S
Davonte Nunnery, So., S
JOHN PLATTENBURG, Jr., S
C.J. Pollard, Fr., S
Yoofi Quansah, Jr., CB-WR
Ykili Ross, RFr., S
Marvell Tell III, So., S
Keyshawn Young, In. Fr., WR
Second in a series of USC 2016 team previews: Next, Special Teams.
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