As we move closer to spring ball, WeAreSC will break down the 15 things we’re most looking forward to watching during those 15 practices that kick off the USC Trojans’ 2020 season. Up next, we look at pressure on both sides of the ball.
Of the deficiencies we’ve seen from the USC defense over the past several years, getting to the quarterback has not been one of them. USC led the nation in sacks in 2017, then finished a respectable third in the Pac-12 last season after tying for fifth in the conference in 2018. Texas, under defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, had just 27 sacks last season–good for No. 69 overall (compared to USC’s 35 sacks, which tied for 28th). Texas did have two players record more than six sacks each during the 2018 season, but that low sack total last year perhaps contributed to Texas getting eviscerated through the air, as the Longhorns finished 127th out of 130 teams in passing yards allowed per game.
USC will have to find a way to create pressure this season, especially because Orlando’s defense typically calls for it to come from linebackers and defensive backs, and the Trojans have a number of players capable of providing it. Defensive linemen Drake Jackson and Jay Tufele will help set the tone at the line of scrimmage, but safeties Talanoa Hufanga (3.5 sacks last season) and Isaiah Pola-Mao (1.5 sacks), linebackers Kana’i Mauga (3 sacks), Abdul-Malik McClain (2 sacks) and Hunter Echols (1.5 sacks) and nickelback Greg Johnson (1 sacks) all showed last year that they can finish pressures.
Last year at Texas, linebacker Joseph Ossai led the team with five sacks, and fellow linebackers Ayodele Adeoye and Juwan Mitchell combined for 5.5. In 2018, linebackers Gary Johnson and Anthony Wheeler combined for 10.5 sacks, and in 2017, linebacker Malik Jefferson tied for the team led with four.
Clearly, finding a way to bring pressure–and more importantly, have it get home–from the second and third levels will be a priority this spring. USC has plenty of options, but the question is whether those options turn into reliable answers.
Do a few of the players who worked at outside linebacker last season–Echols, McClain, Eli’jah Winston, Juliano Falaniko–become reliable assets this year? Does Drake Jackson spend more time standing up as an outside linebacker? Greg Johnson showed some real ability to time blitzes and get to the quarterback during camp last season, so maybe he becomes a real asset here. Talanoa Hufanga can pretty much do everything well, and he showed that when asked to blitz a number of times last season. Or maybe Palaie Gaoteote is let loose and asked to attack in to the backfield.
USC has the players for Orlando to find a few combinations that work, and he’ll likely look to draw up plenty of different looks for opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks to deal with.
And that means the USC offensive line will be tested. Last spring ball and fall camp, this could fall apart quickly for the Trojans up front when the defense started bringing exotic looks and pressures. They could get that from Day 1 against Orlando, and it could be a quick glimpse at how ready this group will be to protect whoever is the starting quarterback this fall.
While Kedon Slovis won’t take any hits from USC defenders this spring, protecting the quarterback will be Mission 1 for the Trojans’ offensive line this fall, after USC has been forced to play three quarterbacks in each other past two years because of injuries suffered on hits by opposing defenders. USC will be looking to fill starting spots at left and right tackle, and that could require shuffling at as many as four spots along the line.
USC doesn’t have to find the final answer along the offensive line in the spring (Drew Richmond took over as the starter after arriving during the summer last year) but the spring could give a solid indication of how this line will do in protecting the quarterback against some really great pass rushing teams this fall. Keeping pressure off the quarterbacks and defenders out of the backfield will be a key to watch over the next 15 practices.
Previous Spring 15s:
Young wide receivers
Drake Jackson and the defensive line
Sean Snyder and special teams
Defensive secondary shakeout