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Stepping into the spotlight: Defense

Kedon Slovis. Jay Tufele. Amon-Ra St. Brown. Talanoa Hufanga. USC has its share of well-known and established starters on both sides of the ball. Here, we take a look at some of the other players who could be counted on to help take the Trojans from good to great this season, as USC will need members of just about every position group to take that next step if USC is going to accomplish its team goals in 2020.

Yesterday we looked at offensive players, so today the defense gets the spotlight.

The USC offense scored enough points last season to win all but maybe one or two games, and with an increase in productivity potentially coming from that side of the ball, it means any improvement in USC’s season record likely needs to come from the defensive side of the ball.

And for the USC defense, things have to start up front. Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu are the leaders of the defensive line and two players who will have a major say in just how good the Trojans’ defensive front is this season. But they can’t do it on their own. If this line is going to establish itself as one of the best in the conference, it needs a big-time year from defensive end Caleb Tremblay.

Tremblay has been singled out multiple times by new defensive line coach Vic So’oto, and his 6-foot-5, 270-pound frame would seem to position him well in terms of how So’oto and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando want their linemen to be able to transition seamlessly between a three-down and four-down lineman look. If Drake Jackson improves even a little bit from his true freshman season, teams are going to look to avoid him. Last season, the Trojans just didn’t get enough production opposite Jackson. If Tremblay can put a legitimate scare into opposing offenses, this defense should get better in a hurry.

Last season Tremblay played in 11 games and started twice. In his first start, against Colorado, he had four tackles and a sack. He finished the season with two sacks and 16 tackles.

Linebacker is absolutely the biggest question mark for the defense, but there are a bunch of talented players there who should give Orlando plenty of options to field a solid unit. Jackson is going to spend some time at linebacker, but after what he did last year and what’s already expected of him this season, he’s not eligible here.

That makes Abdul-Malik McClain the choice at outside linebacker, as the redshirt sophomore was healthy for just five games last season, but flashed enough with his two sacks to think there could be big things ahead for him as a pass rusher in this defense.

On the inside, no linebacker on the roster has as much upside as Solomon Tuliaupupu, who has spent his first two years at USC dealing with a foot injury. USC has plenty of potential starters inside in Palaie Gaoteote, Jordan Iosefa, Kana’i Mauga, Ralen Goforth and others, but Tuliaupupu–if fully healthy–brings a physical and athletic element to the field that maybe no other linebacker possesses. With his ability to disrupt the running and passing game as a blitzer, tackler and in coverage, a big season from Tuliaupupu might have more of a positive effect on the defense than any other player. The only question is whether his foot will allow him to do that.

Like at linebacker, USC’s defensive back roster is talented across the board and presents a number of options for Donte Williams, Craig Naivar and Orlando. Just being good across the board won’t be enough if the Trojans are going to stand up to the Alabama receivers and roll through the Pac-12. USC needs some elite performances in the back end this season, and those could come from several different spots and players.

The Trojans are seemingly set at outside cornerback, as Olaijah Griffen, Isaac Taylor-Stuart and Chris Steele–despite none of them being seniors–are now veterans with enough starting experience. Where the Trojans could get a big boost is at nickel corner, as Max Williams looks ready to become a big-time contributor. After missing spring ball last year due to a high school knee injury, Williams saw the field in four games, starting twice, and picked up six tackles, a sack, a pass deflection and forced fumble.

Williams is one of those defensive backs with such high Football IQ that he always seems to be around the ball. On a defense that has been starved for turnovers and interceptions the past two seasons, Williams could be a major asset there in 2020.

And on a team with three Williams’ in the secondary, it makes sense that it would be another one at safety on this list. The two starting spots are clearly manned by Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao, but Chase Williams has shown that he can be a versatile member of the secondary and was called upon plenty last season, playing in 11 games and starting four times. Both Hufanga and Pola-Mao have dealt with injury issues at USC, and with C.J. Pollard transferring to Utah State, Williams’ presence at safety could be significant this season. Improved play from him there could also allow Orlando and the defense to use Hufanga in creative ways all over the field, and closer to the line of scrimmage.

Erik McKinney

Erik McKinney began writing for WeAreSC in 2004, during his junior year at USC, covering the Trojans football team and recruiting. He then moved on to ESPN.com in 2011, where he served as the West Region recruiting reporter and then the Pac-12 recruiting reporter. He took over as publisher of WeAreSC in January, 2019.

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