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Advanced stats look at the defensive line

How will the Trojans replace the departed Noah Jefferson on the defensive line?

It’s time to start looking toward next season since we don’t know who USC’s bowl game opponent is just yet. A position group of some concern only increased in worry amongst USC fans as news broke on Tuesday night, by Ryan Abraham of course, that Noah Jefferson would be transferring. Jefferson didn’t play very much this season due to an injury, personal reasons, and academics. It is unfortunate for the USC defensive line that Noah will be leaving the program as he would have assuredly stepped into a prominent role next season. This departure compounded by Stevie Tu’ikolovatu finishing up his college eligibility is probably giving fans worry about the USC defensive line’s future.

At a high level, USC’s run defense was one of the team’s strengths in 2016, ranking 10th in S&P+. This is pretty impressive considering the fact that the team predominantly leaned on a 2-4-5 formation (lineman, linebackers, DBs). The two most productive defensive lineman, one leaving and the other staying, were Stevie Tu’ikolovatu and Rasheem Green with 34 tackles and 35 tackles respectively. Green had the edge on both tackles for loss (5.5 to 2) and sacks (5 to .5). The very important caveat there though is that these are two very different d-lineman: Tu’ikolovatu is more of the space eater type, and Green more athletic. While Tu’ikolovatu doesn’t necessarily show up in the box score he undoubtedly contributed to the success of USC’s defense, often commanding double teams and disrupting an opposing offense’s play. 

That begs the question, who steps up to fill Tu’ikolovatu’s rather large shoes?

Looking at the in-house candidates it seems like Josh Fatu would be the first choice based on playing time this season, but he isn’t nearly as big at only 290 pounds. Kenny Bigelow is the same size but coming off of his second knee injury. Could Malik Dorton add even more weight to his current 275 pounds? Based on sheer current size alone the best bets seem to be Kevin Scott at 315 pounds and Jacob Daniel at 325. What Clancy Pendergast will miss most about Tu’ikolovatu is not simply just how big he is, but the attention he commanded from opposing offensive lines such as the one below where he’s surrounded by 3 offensive linemen while the rest of the pass rushers are in one on one matchups.


The reason that offensive lines had to often double team him instead of leaving him one on one, there are chances he’d do things like this to an opposing lineman.

Next season the Trojans get two of the best rushing offenses in the country in the Stanford Cardinal at 11th in rushing S&P+ and the Oregon State Beavers (!!) at 19th in rushing S&P+. There were high hopes for Jefferson this season and for the future, to aid in the USC run defense. That idea undoubtedly holds true for next season as I’m sure the coaching staff was hoping Jefferson would stick around to ease their worries in regards to losing Stevie Tu’kolovatu. I’m sure we’ll all be eagerly checking the Peristyle for updates from Gerard as to who the future D-linemen at USC will be and hope that the young players already on the roster continue develop.

(stats provided by 

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Saman Djabbari graduated from USC in 2008 and is a weekly contributor to and co-host of the Traveler Hates Thursdays' podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @samandjabbari. Top Stories