By Johnny Curren
Through the first three spring practice sessions at USC, one of the overwhelming highlights has been the performance of the Trojans defensive front seven, and no single player has personified the aggressive mindset of Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 scheme more than Porter Gustin, who is lining up at the ‘predator’ outside linebacker position.
“Porter Gustin is doing a tremendous job off the edge,” said USC head coach Clay Helton following the Trojans’ most recent practice on Saturday. “He’s really causing havoc both against the run and pass.”
The Salem (Utah) Hills product made an instant contribution as a freshman at rush end in former USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s system this past fall, making two starts, and compiling 25 tackles, seven tackles-for-loss, and tying for the team-lead in sacks with 5.5.
Making a seamless transition this spring to his new role, which frees him up to attack the offensive backfield and utilize his pass rushing skills with greater frequency, Gustin has been flat-out dominant at times while running exclusively with the No. 1 defense.
“I like what I’m seeing,” Gustin said. “It’s very similar, but I do think that we’ll be rushing the quarterback more. I have noticed we are up on the line a little bit more. I think it allows me to play to my strengths, being able to get more rushes and make the quarterback feel uncomfortable.”
In Pendergast’s previous stint as USC’s defensive coordinator in 2013, edge rushers Devon Kennard, J.R. Tavai and, prior to his injury, Morgan Breslin, all thrived, combining for 29.5 tackles for loss with 17 sacks.
Gustin is hoping that he and the other outside linebackers can replicate that kind of success in 2016.
“I’ve definitely watched film on those guys,” Gustin said. “They’re great players, great run stoppers, pass rushers…everything. We’re in the same defense now, so hopefully we can live up to the standard they set.”
In an effort to ensure that he is able to do his part, Gustin worked tirelessly this past January and February, not only in the film room, but also in the weight room and out on the field, and it shows. Having played at 250 pounds as a freshman, he intentionally added even more bulk to his 6-foot-5 frame – 12 pounds to be exact – while also making a concerted effort to maintain his speed and agility.
“I wanted to get a little bit stronger, and I’ve been working on my flexibility and my hips,” said Gustin, a fantastic all-around athlete who in addition to starring as a linebacker and quarterback on the high school level, also excelled in baseball, basketball and track & field. “I’m just trying to be able to play the run better with a little bit more size, and be a little bit more agile coming off the edge – being able to bend and rush the quarterback better.”
In addition to a new defense, Gustin is also acclimating himself to a fresh collection of defensive coaches. Having worked primarily with Peter Sirmon and Chris Wilson during his first season on campus, he now spends most of his time during practice with Johnny Nansen – who slid over from the running backs to fill Sirmon’s role as linebackers coach – while also gaining tutelage from Pendergast and defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze at times.
“It’s been great working with those guys,” Gustin said. “New schemes and a lot of energy. Coach Nansen definitely brings a lot of energy.”
And it isn’t just Nansen and Co. pushing Gustin, but also the other ‘predator’ linebackers currently battling him for playing time, most notably veteran senior Jabari Ruffin, as well as highly touted early-entrant freshman Oluwole Betiku.
“The competition is definitely pushing me to be better,” Gustin said. “Jabari, he’s the older guy, and he’s played in this defense before, so he has experience. Wole, he’s new. He hasn’t been around football as much as us, so he still needs to get some terminology down and some of the things like that, but he is a great talent.
“You’ve got other guys who want the position, so you have to go 100 percent all the time.”
With 12 practice’s remaining, and that element of competition helping to drive him, it will be interesting to watch Gustin’s continued development in Pendergast’s system this spring. But if his performance through the first week of drills is any kind of indication at all, it’s not hard to picture him making quite a name for himself for the Trojans in 2016.