In high school, Noah Jefferson used to moonlight as a tight end during 7-on-7 passing tournaments since there is no rushing the passer. He also played basketball for Henderson (Nev.) Liberty.
Ask Jefferson and he might still tell you he could switch over to the offensive side of the ball, but he’s at home on the defensive line. Though there was no question what position he would play in college, his ability to play tight end showcased what excites Clay Helton and the USC coaching staff about Jefferson’s potential.
“I love his quick twitch, which I think is really hard on offensive guards, especially when you set him on an edge,” Helton said. “His athleticism is something I think is really hard on interior linemen and his ability to shimmy, shake, get upfield -- different moves, different tools in the toolbox in pass rushing.
“He's a weapon.”
A weapon that was sidelined for a lengthy period of spring practice and fall training camp because of a back injury. At a position of need for the Trojans, one of their expected starters was struggling with an injury that kept coming back clear on MRIs.
“it was pretty difficult sitting back. I wasn't really depressed, but I was kind of discouraged that I couldn't be out there with my team,” Jefferson said. “Everybody wants to be with their team, their family. I wanted to be out there with my dogs, out there grinding with them.”
“But it made me hungry at the same time and I had to learn how to step back and actually realize the situation and what I could do to still develop as a player off the field.”
The sophomore eventually received an epidural, believed to have been administered on August 11, and his back has responded well, allowing him to return to the competition to replace five senior linemen, including the entire starting defensive line.
But the treatment started long before the epidural. Jefferson has been working throughout the offseason to shed pounds while strengthening his core muscles. Jefferson was pushed by assistant strength coach Torre Becton and head trainer Russ Romano to continue to build strength even if he was limited by the injury.
“[Becton] taught me a lot of different exercises that I could do so that I wouldn't have to use my back as much as using more of my core, more of my legs to really help ease the pain off my back.”
Romano put him through a pair of core workouts each day, which Jefferson said has made him functionally stronger on the football field. After playing between 330-345 pounds last season, Jefferson said he’s now weighing in at 290-295 pounds and feels like he has more power.
He now knows how to engage his core muscles for football movements. Rather than relying on his mass and “laying on people playing nose tackle,” Jefferson has more full-body strength to overpower blockers. The loss of 40-50 pounds has also increased his running ability.
Jefferson once saw running backs get to the edge and knew there was no chance for him to chase them down. Now when a rusher gets outside, it becomes a personal challenge.
“Our running backs are fast. They like to get out and I see them running down the sideline. I like to try to catch them to see if I can do it. I try to now. I feel a lot better.”
“I can play defensive end a lot better than I could when I was 330. I would say that is for sure. I feel like I can play nose tackle better during a pass rush because I'm faster than most offensive linemen now since I'm lighter.”
The difference has been noticed by the coaches as well. Helton said the weight loss has helped “a bunch.” He sees the strength gains and expects a big season from Jefferson.
Last year, Jefferson played 251 snaps, including a season-high 41 in the Holiday Bowl against Wisconsin when he made his first career start. He finished the year with 23 tackles, most of any returning defensive lineman, but Jefferson could still be considered a breakout candidate this year. One of the reasons is the change from a two-gap to a one-gap defensive scheme that allows defensive linemen to attack at the line of scrimmage rather than attempting to occupy blockers in order to free up the linebackers to make plays.
“That means we are striking people,” defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze said in the spring. “We’re knocking them back and we’re getting off blocks. The other way around, in the 3-4 system, you have these big, huskier guys that literally just take up space and the linebackers do most of the tackling.”
The defensive linemen have had to retrain themselves and re-learn to charge off the ball, hoping to be the disruptors.
“This scheme really lets us attack and get in the backfield more,” Jefferson said. “It lets us be able to make plays.”
Before Jefferson can have a big season or be a breakout star, he has to get on the field. That started with taking care of his back. Now he has to take care of winning a starting position. To do that, Jefferson know he must become reliable in the run and pass games.
“Be consistent. Just be consistent in everything. Getting back to what I do best and just playing football. Coming out of my hips, not hopping out of my stance and just playing with good technique, being a technician like my coach, KU, said.”
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