Shotgun Spratling | USCfootball.com

Spring Questions . . . The Defense

Third and final in our series of questions for this USC team this spring. How does Clancy Pendergast take the next step with what will be a younger, but deeper and more athletic, defense in Year 2? And who does he take that step with?

They don't give a Heisman Trophy for defense, not really. Not any more.

So when your team has a legitimate candidate the way USC's Trojans do for 2016 -- and he's a quarterback -- the spotlight is obviously going to shine on the guys with the football.

But as was made clear in USC's thrilling Rose Bowl comeback win over Penn State, no way Sam Darnold could have worked his magic had a USC defense that was mostly missing in action the second and third quarters, not come back to make every play it had a chance to make in a shutout final quarter.

That defense was led in crunch time by senior linebacker Michael Hutchings, senior safety Leon McQuay and grad student,  defensive MVP nose tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu that rose to the occasion.

They did so in the absence of All-American and Thorpe Award winner Adoree' Jackson, out at the end of that game with an ankle injury. And now officially off to the NFL. So that's a big hit just with those four gone as we go into spring.

But that's it as far as starters are concerned. Lots of young talent returning this spring, By count, there are 18 of the two-deep roster on defense returning. By themselves, that's enough to give Clancy the kind of rotation he'd like.

Now the questions arise? Is that all? Who else? Where does that happen? Who does it happen with?

Here are our questions:

*** 1) Who takes over Hutchings' quiet, strong leadership mantle? From practice every day to those big moments in the Rose Bowl, the smart, tough-minded De La Salle alum always seemed to be there. Who does that now? Is this junior Cameron Smith's moment?

*** 2) And in his second season after surgery, is Cameron's bounce back in that knee? Will he be able to run people down and cover the way he did as a freshman All-American?

*** 3) And who joins Smith inside replacing Hutchings there? Is the athletic John Houston finally healthy enough to reach his five-star potential? What about Jordan Iosefa? He certainly flashed as a freshman. Or will there be some movement inside and out as there was last fall and do we see Uchenna Nwosu making that move from outside in where he was such a strong edge presence? And where does Olajuwon Tucker land? Same question for versatile early entry freshman Tayler Katoa who also played QB and DE in high school. 

*** 4) How will the improvement and impact of second-year physical talents Connor Murphy and Oluwole Betiku moving up in their second season behind or along with an improving Porter Gustin influence the personnel decisions all along the linebacker line? And influence the aggressive style Clancy wants to implement? Will they be ready? Can two of those three play at the same time? And how does that improve the pass rush?

*** 5) As to the guys with their hands in the ground, how good can Rasheem Green be in Year 3? The same questions for all the returnees -- Malik Dorton, Josh Fatu, Jacob Daniel, Liam Jimmons and Christian Rector? Does one of them separate himself from the rest? Or will it take a group effort of all five, numbers USC didn't think it would have last fall?

*** 6) But maybe more importantly, where will Kenny Bigelow be in his final season after his second knee surgery and at a solid 310 pounds? Can he fulfill the potential predicted for him and be the answer at nose replacing Stevie? How much can he do and show this spring after what seems to have been a remarkably quick rehab?

*** 7) And finally along the front line, how quickly does early entry freshman Marlon Tuipulotu make his mark? Could he be the next Stevie T? Would that surprise anyone if he is? And for all of the above, can USC generate a pass rush from the front line without help this time around?

*** 8) Can USC replace Leon and Adoree' in the secondary with the athletic and physical, but untested talents, of the Florida duo of safety Jamel Cook and corner Pie Young? How quickly can they get in the mix?

*** 9) Does fifth-year senior Chris Hawkins make this his secondary this season from the safety spot? And how much better can returning starter Marvell Tell be? And does John Plattenburg get healthy and get back to where he was as a hard-hitting starter? And then there's the athletic potential of Ykili Ross. Is this his time? And do we see a post-grad Matt Lopes for a final season? With the freshman Cook, that would seem to be a pretty decent two-deep, you'd think?

*** 10) With Iman Marshall cemented in at one corner, does Jack Jones make it an all-Poly duo there? Or when he's healthy, sometime starter Jonathan Lockett, What about Isaiah Langley? Is this his time to make the big step? And does Ajene Harris stay as the slot guy or does he make a move to corner?

*** 11) And for all these guys and for this defense, can USC stop the big plays? From Alabama in the opener to Stanford in the Pac-12 opener to Penn State in that closing Rose Bowl game, when this USC defense made a mistake, it too often was a big one. What if this 2016 Trojans defense doesn't allow the busted coverages and missed 50-50 balls to come back to bite them from long distance? Is that something we can expect in CP Year 2?

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.


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