Spring Cleaning: Defensive Line

Who steps in at nose tackle? Does Tupou's injury mean George Uko plays this season? Can Jurrell Casey become an every-down force? Look inside for the answers to these questions and much more.

Depth chart

Defensive End            Nose Tackle                    Defensive Tackle         Defensive End
Armond Armstead   Christian Tupou (Out)       Jurrell Casey              Nick Perry OR
Malik Jackson           Derek Simmons                 DaJohn Harris            Wes Horton

Three questions answered in the spring

1. The defensive line is the best and deepest position group on the roster.

Eight deep, that's how stacked the D-line is after one spring with the new staff. They'll all play, leading Coach Lane Kiffin, not prone to hyperbole this past April, to declare it the team's unquestioned strength.

Armond Armstead could have a breakout year in 2010 .
Of the projected starters, it wouldn't be a stretch to see Casey, Perry and Armstead all recognized nationally at season's end.

And that's key to a defensive turnaround, a strong front giving the linebackers and secondary opportunities to make plays. The best of Carroll's teams, from 2002 to 2004, were anchored by a stout quartet that got to the quarterback and shut down the run. Do that and it's easy to win a lot of games.

2. DaJohn Harris is the spring's most improved player.

Harris was completely written off coming into this spring, a guy who would never contribute to the team.

What a difference 15 days makes. Harris was a revelation, turning in the defense's two signature plays and generally looking like a whole new man. Slimmer and more athletic, the redshirt junior exploded onto the scene with a strip sack of Mitch Mustain and never let up.

No player embodied the turnaround of this new USC team in the spring like Harris. If he can now deliver in game action, it will bode very well for prospects of returning to the unparalleled success Trojan fans, coaches and players saw in the last decade.

3. Ed Orgeron was the missing ingredient.

The big Cajun never would have let the team play flat against Arizona. That booming voice would have shook the whole Coliseum out of its complacency. He never would have let USC get pushed around by Stanford or Oregon.

It just wouldn't have happened. Orgeron wouldn't have let it happen, by sheer force of will.

Of course, he also would have coached up the defensive line. That might have helped too.

In the spring, the players under his tutelage showed better footwork and had quicker hands. Pass rush moves were better. They were more disciplined in their assignments.

They were flat out better coached.

For a team that lost its swagger and energy last season, having Coach O back in the fold should make all the difference.

Three questions for the fall

1. Who steps in at nose tackle?

On first glance, the obvious name would be Harris. However, his pass rush and ability to penetrate are better suited for defensive tackle. The nose tackle is usually tasked with handing two blockers, the perfect assignment for massive Hebron Fangupo.

With size unlike any interior tackle in the Carroll era, Fangupo would have been a solution to help fix the Trojan run defense late last season, if not for a broken leg against Washington State.

He could be the answer this time around.

2. Does Tupou's injury mean George Uko plays this season?

Short answer? It depends.

Long answer? It depends. If injuries take their toll, notably with Fangupo still recovering from a broken fibula. He struggled physically to put together back-to-back practices, even with a day or two off in between.

If Fangupo can return to the form he showed early last season and the numbers that emerged in the spring can be maintained, Uko won't see the field in 2010.

3. Can Jurrell Casey become an every-down force?

Shaun Cody and Sedrick Ellis earned All-American honors in their time at USC. Now Casey is already being slotted on several preseason teams, on potential and history. He fits the athletic mould of his predecessors and has the coaching to get him there.

As a sophomore, Casey actually had nine tackles for loss, but was shut down against Oregon and Stanford. He rose to the occasion in the Emerald Bowl with a key fumble recovery near the goal line, helping turn back momentum in that game.

Casey just needs the numbers, which will come with improved effort and consistency. That is what Orgeron tried to drill into him during the spring. Based on his track record, would anyone bet against Coach O?

DaJohn Harris was the most improved player on the team this spring.

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