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D-Line Goes Back to Basics

There were plenty of numbers from the 2018 season that USC fans would just as soon forget, from a 5-7 record, to blowing 14-0 leads, to not having a single 1,000-yard rusher or receiver. But there might not be a number that carries more weight and defines the season more than 289.

That would be the number of rushing yards allowed to UCLA running back Joshua Kelley, an incredible number at the time and something that becomes even more head-shaking each time it’s mentioned.

New defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a (photo above) has a different number in mind for his group this spring.

“We started from 101 football,” Kauha’aha’a said of going all the way back to the basics in his effort to mold this defensive line from scratch. “Fixing stance. Fixing getoffs. Obviously they learned how to get out of their stance a certain way. Talking to coach [Clancy] Pendergast, he wants it done a certain way, so I’ve addressed it and we’re going through it a certain way.”

The idea of simplifying things offensively and defensively has been thrown around constantly this spring, by coaches and players alike. It’s the same along the defensive line, where Kauha’aha’a’s marching order from Pendergast and head coach Clay Helton were crystal clear, as he mentioned gap control and stopping the run as utmost priorities.

“That’s a point of emphasis,” Kauha’aha’a said of stopping the run. “Them having that mentality of stopping the run.”

Chad Kauha’aha’a works with his defensive linemen

After stance and technique, Kauha’aha’a said he preaches “playing through the numbers” to his defensive linemen, which means playing across the line of scrimmage rather than just on it.

“And I have the dudes that can do it,” Kauha’aha’a said.

Two of those dudes are Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu, who figured to be central figures in USC’s quest to play dominant run defense this season. Both have received consistent praise for their play through a handful of spring practices, and both were terrific in the live tackling portion of Thursday’s practice.

Kauha’aha’a was effusive in his praise of Tufele.

“He plays with relentless effort,” he said. “He goes hard on every single play. He’s taken a bunch of reps, whether he’s playing 3-technique or nose guard, you can’t slow him down.”

“With the season we had last year, it wasn’t the best and we all knew that,” Tufele said of needing a strong start to spring ball. “We came together and we talked, and we said that everything is going to start up front.”

Like seemingly the rest of the positions with new coaches, the defensive linemen and Kauha’aha’a have clicked early. And though they all admit there is still plenty of road to travel, they like how far they’ve come already.

“He’s getting our technique right,” Tuipulotu said. “He’s a great coach.”

USC allowed 164 rushing yards per game last year and ranked 67th nationally, which simply shouldn’t be the case with a group of players Kauha’aha’a said reminds him early on of having the potential to match the defensive line he had at Utah, which was filled with future NFL players.

The line, with Tufele, Tuipulotu, and Brandon Pili anchoring the middle, along with strong early contributions from newcomers Drake Jackson and Nick Figueroa, should eventually be a strength for this team come fall. USC fans hope that means seeing a few numbers they can cheer this year, in terms of sacks and tackles for loss. It’s still early, but there’s definitely a positive feeling from players and coach.

“They’re adjusting to me,” Kauha’aha’a said. “I’m adjusting to them. They’re picking up the techniques. I like where we’re at.”

Erik McKinney

Erik McKinney began writing for WeAreSC in 2004, during his junior year at USC, covering the Trojans football team and recruiting. He then moved on to ESPN.com in 2011, where he served as the West Region recruiting reporter and then the Pac-12 recruiting reporter. He took over as publisher of WeAreSC in January, 2019.

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