With the possible exception of wide receiver, there isn’t a position on the USC roster with more talent at the top than the defensive line.
But this is also a unit that needs to take a major step forward this fall. Last season, a talented line helped allow the USC defense to finish 67th in rushing yards allowed per game, 64th in scoring defense, and just 43rd in sacks per game.
We saw some definite improvement this spring, starting with the line taking to new position coach Chad Kauha’aha’a and his desire to maintain gap integrity and play across the line of scrimmage.
There was real vocal leadership from the three veteran interior players, in Jay Tufele, Marlon Tuipulotu, and Brandon Pili. All three were fantastic and have the potential to grab All-Conference recognition this fall. Defensive end Christian Rector’s position has been simplified, allowing him to pin his ears back a bit more. He is a known entity at this point, but it would seem that getting some more consistent and dominant play from the interior will allow him to have the same kind of presence and performance he had two years ago.
While the starters will come from that group, the Trojans needed to find some reliable depth this spring, and while two hopefuls in that department, in Trevor Trout and Caleb Tremblay, missed all or most of spring ball, there were some players who made it known that they’ll be heard from this fall.
It started with the two newcomers, in true freshman Drake Jackson and junior college transfer Nick Figueroa.
Jackson was terrific from the opening practice and will likely be called upon to play plenty this fall. His one-handed interception return for a touchdown during the spring showcase was one of the plays of the spring. We’ll see what happens this fall, because true freshmen pass rushers can sometimes be found out quickly by opposing veteran offensive tackles, but Jackson seems to have an array of moves and the physical stature to hold up out on the field.
Figueroa was also very impressive as a newcomer, bouncing inside and out along the line. There’s no question that he has the ability to play right away.
We also saw some steps forward from reserves Connor Murphy and Jacob Lichtenstein. Murphy especially had a nice spring for himself, as he will hopefully be someone who can fill in at times this fall to give the starters a breather.
Early enrollee Stanley Ta’ufo’ou was listed as a linebacker, but moved to the interior of the defensive line for the entirety of spring ball. He is undersized to play there now, but this is certainly a developmental move for the future, as he showed flashes this spring and will simply need to bulk up to contribute down the line.
There is very little help coming to this unit this fall, as the Trojans signed just three defensive linemen in the 2019 class, and both Jackson and Figueroa are already on campus. Joining them will be defensive tackle De’jon Benton, who flipped late in the recruiting process from Washington State to USC. Benton will likely need to add some weight once he arrives, but could wind up being a valuable recruiting win with the ability to develop into a future starter.
Without more bodies arriving on campus, getting back a healthy Tremblay and Trout could go a long way toward shoring up that line with the needed depth to get through an entire season.
Looking ahead at the 2020 recruiting class, USC has yet to secure a verbal commitment from a defensive lineman and it hasn’t shown itself to be a great year for local talent at that spot in terms of depth.
Defensive end Tuli Tuipulotu (Lawndale, Calif./Lawndale) is a strong possibility due to his brother, USC defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu. In state, the Trojans have also offered defensive ends DeShawn Lynch (Folsom, Calif./Folsom) and Omarr Norman-Lott (Sacramento, Calif./Grant), and defensive tackle Jamar Sekona (Greenbrae, Calif./Marin Catholic). Two Utah prospects are high on the list as well, in defensive ends Xavier Carlton (Draper, Utah/Juan Diego) and Van Fillinger (Draper, Utah/Corner Canyon).
The Trojans do hold a verbal commitment from a defensive lineman in the 2021 class, as defensive tackle Jay Toia (Simi Valley, Calif./Grace Bretheren) a former high school teammate of Stanley Ta’ufo’ou, committed to USC back in June of last year.