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O/NSO: Springing ahead to a certain and uncertain defense edition

The Obvious: When USC spring practice begins in a little more than two weeks (Monday, March 29), there are two things for certain on defense. The Trojans will be into the second season of Todd Orlando’s (cover photo above) aggressive defense, and this will be the first true spring practice for Orlando’s defense, which figures to refine last season’s promising progress.

The Not So Obvious: The defensive uncertainty, however, is how the Trojans are going to fill the huge shoes of Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, safety Talanoa Hufanga, and All-Pac-12 tackle Marlon Tuipulotu – not to mention Jay Tufele, who opted not to play last season because of COVID and has entered the NFL draft.There are options, but spring ball will give the Trojans the opportunities to sort things out and lay the defensive foundation for the 2021 season.   

The Obvious: When USC spring practice begins. there are two things for certain on defense. On Clay Helton’s 10-man coaching staff, there were no defensive coaching departures and no coaching additions, which should go a long way in continuity and communication. In other words, everybody is on the proverbial same page.  

The Not So Obvious: There are at least two uncertainties in each defensive unit, which will be bolstered this spring by the addition of a number of early freshmen/transfer enrollees. In terms of numbers of the new faces, there will be two defensive linemen, one linebacker, and four secondary athletes that we know of that should compete on Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Fields. There’s, of course, always the uncertainty of position groups until the official spring roster is released.

The Obvious: When USC spring practice begins, there are two things for certain along the defensive line. Gone early to the NFL draft are the likes of Marlon Tuipuloto and Jay Tufele, and then there is the transfer of Connor Murphy to UNLV. The other certainty is the return of experienced veterans Nick Figueroa, Caleb Trembly, and Brandon Pili. All three figure to be vital certainties during spring progress.   

The Trojans will be looking for big things this spring from returning defensive lineman Nick Figueroa (photo above – No. 50). (Photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

The Not So Obvious: One of the defensive line uncertainties is who will be filling the spot by the departed Marlon Tuipulotu? The thought process here is that Alabama transfer Ishmael Sopsher, once one of the nation’s top high school recruits, is the lead candidate to replace Marlon. It would also appear that sophomore Tuli Tuipulotu, younger brother of Marlon, is potentially slated for the other tackle spot. The uncertainty here is not how talented Tuli is but how far can he take his talents, which are considerable.

The Trojans are expecting that former Alabama transfer Ishmael Sopsher (photo above) will eventually fill the shoes of departed All-Pac-12 defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu . ( USC Athletics)

Another uncertainty is also how much progress youngsters like Jamar Sekona, Stanley Ta’ufo’ou, and Kobe Pepe can make in spring, and what of the return of Floridian Jacob Lichtenstein to the fold after opting out last season? There is a lot to be sorted out by second-year DL coach Vic So’oto, who knows more now about his defensive line roster after a season under his belt. 

The Obvious: When USC spring practice begins, there are two things for certain regarding the Trojans linebackers. Veteran starting inside linebackers Kana’i Mauga and Ralen Goforth, and outside linebacker/defensive lineman Drake Jackson, who could be the Trojans next defensive All-American, should provide some interesting battles with the eager youngsters.  

The Trojans return experienced inside linebacker Kana’i Mauga (photo above), who sets the foundation for the 2021 spring defense.

The Not So Obvious: The linebacker uncertainty begins with outside backer/D-liner Drake Jackson and his progresses in terms of just where he is the most effective. Is he better rushing the passer, containment on the edge, or dropping into coverage – a true hybrid? Perhaps spring ball will alleviate some of those Jackson uncertainties. Then there’s the health uncertainties regarding longtime inside backer Jordan Iosefa (knee) and the relentless ailments of Solomon Tuliaupupu (knee). Just where are they in their recoveries from surgery? The long-awaited return of Iosefa and Tuliaupupu on the field for any length of time is intriguing if not frustrating for all concerned.  

It appears that junior defensive lineman/linebacker Drake Jackson (photo above) is on the path to national recognition and will use the spring for continued development of his hybrid position.

Aside from the uncertainty of Iosefa and Tuliaupupu, there’s up-and-coming Tuasivi Nomura and how much can he provide as a support inside backer, which may show more dividends with a full spring? Add the arrival of heralded true freshman Julien Simon from the state of Washington and the full return of Tayler Katoa (a full spring practice in Orlando’s defense after earlier having once served on a two-year Mormon mission), and there’s a lot of intrigue at linebacker – both inside and outside. Oh, and by the way, does Raymond Scott return to safety after helping out last season at linebacker? Such uncertainty. The coach in charge of figuring it all out, of course, is second-year defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, who mentors the linebackers. One last uncertainty, whatever happened with inside linebacker Palaie Gaoteote?

The Obvious: When USC spring practice begins, there are two things for certain on defense. The Trojans have to fill a vital corner spot with the early departure of Olaijah Griffin to the NFL draft, and opposite corner, second-team All-Pac-12 performer Chris Steele returns, which will go a long way in helping determine the correct corner combinations.

The Trojans will look to this spring to find a replacement for corner Olaijah Griffin (photo above – No. 2), who has elected to take his talents to the NFL. (Photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

The Not So Obvious: The corner uncertainty is depth, and it will be interesting to see the progress of coach Donte William’s unit. Is the return of veteran Isaac Taylor-Stuart the quick answer or will he be challenged? There are certainly enough bodies, especially with three incoming freshmen (Anthony Beavers Jr., Calen Bullock, and Xamarion Gordon) and one transfer (Xavion Alford) participating this spring. Can one of the newbies actually rise to a starting spot by the end of spring ball?

The Trojans are hoping this spring that All-Pac-12 second team performer Chris Steele (photo above – No. 8) will help tackle the question marks for a talented but youthful secondary group. (Photo by Jose/MarinMedia.org Pool for USC Athletics)

There is, indeed, a lot of bodies to provide competition, which brings uncertainty but promise into this spring as to what each new corner candidate brings to the cardinal and gold secondary table. The list of candidates seems endless when you also start naming candidates like returning youngsters Dorian Hewett, Adonis Otey and Jayden Williams. Who will rise to the occasion and grab the spotlight?

And if you’re paying attention, there are the current nickel backs – namely Greg Johnson and Max Williams. Could either be given a run for their position money by one of the young corners? Position changes on both sides of the ball are always an intriguing aspect of spring ball.

The Trojans expect the return of nickel back Greg Johnson (photo above), who is recovering from knee surgery suffered during the 2020 season.

The Obvious: When USC spring practice begins, there are two things for certain on defense. The Trojans safety position – and you can throw in the entire defense – will be missing a huge piece in Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Talanoa Hufanga, the spectacular junior who has entered the NFL draft. One positive certainty was the return announcement of safety Isaiah Pola-Mao, whose time has come to lead the Trojans’ secondary.

The Trojans are going to be looking this spring for a replacement for 2020 All-America safety and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Talanoa Hufanga (photo above – No. 15), who has entered April’s NFL draft. (Photo by Jose / MarinMedia.org Pool for USC Athletics)

The Not So Obvious: The safety uncertainty begins with who can possibly replace All-American Hufanga or is he simply irreplaceable with the current talent on hand? There may not be an immediate answer, which can be a bit frightening when you think about it. Hufanga was the closest to NFL and College Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu that the Trojans’ secondary has seen in quite some time.

The Trojans received good news earlier this spring when safety Isaiah Pola-Mao (photo above) announced he would be returning to Troy and foregoing April’s NFL draft.

The coach in charge of searching and developing a replacement for Hufanga is second-year safety coach Craig Naivar, who seems to be quite the mentor. A big story line could be how much of an impact Texas transfer Xavion Alford, once a highly recruited talent from the Lone Star State, can make. Alford was recruited by Naivar when the coach was with the Texas Longhorns, so there is a huge comfort zone there and already an ability evaluation.

Trojans second-year safety coach Craig Naivar (photo above) will be looking this spring to find not only a replacement for All-American Talanoa Hufanga but also safety depth this spring.

Again, there is uncertainty whether any of the incoming secondary talents – Beavers, Bullock, and Gordon – can impress the coach to be part of the 2021 mix. Bsides the aforementioned, outside possibilities could also include Kaulana Makaula and Briton Allen. All these names bear watching during the mixing and matching between corners and safeties and even the nickel position for that matter.    

The Obvious: And finally, it has been said that offense scores points and defense wins championships, but most championship teams also have outstanding special teams.

The Not So Obvious: Next Friday’s O/NSO will explore the Trojans special teams, which also has both its certainties and uncertainties.

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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