USC will hit the field for its fifth practice of spring ball on Thursday afternoon, but defensive line coach Vic So’oto only counts two real practices so far, as the Trojans were wearing full pads for sessions only this past Saturday and Tuesday.
So’oto said he can only grade players when they’re in full pads and tackling. So, with two practices in the books–plus eight weeks of offseason workouts–what as So’oto seen from his defensive line group?
“A lot of guys have stepped up,” So’oto said. “A lot of guys are gtting opportunities to show what they can do and really position themselves for fall camp, when you can carve out a role in our defense.”
So’oto said they’ve moved players all over the line and are looking to see how they react to a number of different asks of them. We’ve seen De’jon Benton work as a standup defensive end, and both Tuli Tuipulotu and Jamar Sekona drop fairly deep into coverage.
Sekona is someone who has caught the eye of several coaches with his work in the offseason. So’oto said the young lineman showed up to spring camp in shape and has been able to make his presence felt because of it.
“Now what his role will be in the fall is still up in the air and it’s still something that’s being worked on daily,” So’oto said of Sekona. “But he positioned himself in the best way that he could with these winter workouts and coming in in shape.”
So’oto also praised Jacob Lichtenstein for his offseason work. Lichtenstein made the decision to opt out of the 2020 season but returned to the team partway through. He’s shown some real flashes through a handful of practices and could turn into a productive piece of this line.
“Jake’s done a really good job in the weight room,” So’oto said. “I think first and foremost he enjoys weight training. As a coach, you see pictures in the offseason where he’s by the beach and has his shirt off and he’s ripped up and big ole’ muscles man. For me it was, let’s see what happens when we put the pads on. Credit to Jake, he’s got a very physical mindset to how he goes about things in the weight room and it’s carried over to the field to where we’re not in pads, he’s still striking like we’re in pads, which I love. He’s been doing a really good job, it’s been nice to see him out there and going through everything, playing the run and then getting after the quarterback. There’s a lot there that we have to work through and get better, but what he’s done with his body this offseason and his mindset has helped me as a coach to push him and to get him better.”
So’oto has only had senior Brandon Pili fully available for one practice this spring. Pili might be a major key to the offensive line this season, and it’s clear So’oto is specifically setting challenges for him to reach.
Heading into Tuesday’s practice, So’oto said he was looking to get Pili motivated to come out firing for his first full day. On Thursday morning, So’oto said it was mission accomplished for that day, but only just starting in the big picture.
“I got him pissed off. Now I gotta teach him technique,” So’oto said of his senior defensive tackle. “Mindset first and then everything else after, right? Excited he’s back out there and got to go through a full practice. Now it’s next practice, next practice, next practice and so on.”
The biggest question facing the USC defensive line this season relates to how it will replace Marlon Tuipulotu, who was dominant through the early part of last season and a mainstay in the middle of the line throughout the year. The Trojans hope that Alabama transfer Ishmael Sopsher will provide another body there, but So’oto said Pili is the guy your eyes naturally gravitate to because of his status as a senior and his experience. But it’ll be up to him to grab the spot.
“Consistency and production on the field and consistency in great technique and fundamentals, just like everybody else,” So’oto said of what he’s looking for from Pili. “Honestly, he’s the one that you look at the roster and say, this guy should be it. There’s a lot of guys vying for a spot and to fill what Marlon left behind, but I would say he has the best opportunity just by age alone and experience. With him, it’s showing that he can do it day in and day out and fighting off guys that really want to play.”
True freshman Jay Toia is one of those guys who will be trying to play right away. He’s shown already that he has the size and strength to contribute immediately.
“I think Jay is just like everybody else,” So’oto said. “Everybody knows that there’s open spots and everybody knows that how you do when we have full pads on is going to directly correlate to how many snaps you get in the fall. Jay is just like any other true freshman mid-year, is understanding the playbook and figuring out how to be a college student and how to play at a high level with a coach that demands a lot. And he’s been doing a great job. Again, another kid that has a lot to work on, but doesn’t shy away from contact, doesn’t shy away from work, shows up every day with a great attitude to take hard coaching and to get better. The sky’s the limit for Jay and we’ll see what happens through these next few months, but the way he comes ready to work is the same thing that Tuli has—just a passion for football. And I can work with that.”
Tuli is Tuli Tuipulotu, who came on strong as a true freshman last season and is being looked at to take the next step this year, and maybe then some. So’oto was asked what the next step is for Tuipulotu and he said it comes down to consistent production on the field and leadership off it.
“Once you become a great player on the field, the best players make everyone else around them better,” So’oto said. “That’s something that he has to learn. Everybody in our room, everybody on our team has to understand that once you become the guy, it’s how you become a legend is when you bring everybody else around you, make everyone else around you better, in your own way. “
Benton and Kobe Pepe are two more young defensive linemen who have a real chance to contribute this season.
“DayDay (Benton) changed his body just like Jamar changed his body and he’s come in with a new attitude,” So’oto said. “He’s running around and doing what he’s great at, which is being really twitchy and fast. And then Kobe has continued from last year, competing to get that starting spot. Jamar has been running with the ones, but Kobe is right behind him and they’re competing. That’s what I love to see is they’re competing in everything. Those guys have done a really nice job.”
USC has spent the first part of spring ball without two of its key contributors along the line, as Nick Figueroa will miss the entire spring while rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery and Drake Jackson hasn’t participated in a full practice yet. USC has gotten some production this spring from Caleb Tremblay and Stanley Ta’ufo’ou, in addition to the aforementioned group.
With the first game still months away, spring ball gives the coaches to establish what they want from their group as far as a mindset, rather than diving into the Xs and Os of scheme and formations they’re going to see from opponents in the coming weeks. USC and So’oto didn’t go very deep into the bench along the defensive line last season, as Marlon Tuipulotu was such a rock in the middle of the line, and both Tuli Tuipulotu and Nick Figueroa seemed to separate themselves. So’oto said his hope is that they are able to have a full two-deep that can rotate in without any dropoff this season, and setting the stage to accomplish that is a big part of spring ball.
Early returns have been positive up front as far as the numbers of players who could make contributions this season, but nothing is close to being set yet.
“Who that is is still up in the air and who carves out a role for themselves in the fall is still yet to be seen,” So’oto said. “But a lot of guys have come in ready to work and ready to learn.”