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Taking stock: Defensive line

We move to the defensive side of the ball in our taking stock series, with position-by-position looks at what was expected and delivered in the 2020 season, as well as what the future holds. Here, we look at a defensive line that performed well under new coaching.

Previous entries:

Running back
Wide receiver
Tight end
Offensive line

What was expected

The defensive line took the biggest unexpected hit over the offseason, as Jay Tufele announced he would opt out of the delayed 2020 season and then did not return once the fall scheduled was announced. In his place, the Trojans were going to need to get big production from Marlon Tuipulotu and Brandon Pili in the middle.

Caleb Trembley made a quick impression on new defensive line coach Vic So’oto and it was expected that he would slide into a starting spot up front, replacing the departed Christian Rector. Nick Figueroa had a year under his belt and needed to at least become a significant part of the rotation up front. And the Trojans needed to get something out of veterans such as Connor Murphy, Trevor Trout, Jacob Lichtenstein.

It was unknown just how much the younger returning players would contribute, but De’jon Benton showed flashes during practice as a true freshman in 2019 and Stanley Ta’ufo’ou had seemingly completed his transition from linebacker to the defensive line. USC signed three linemen in the 2020 recruiting class, but little was expected of Tuli Tuipulotu, Jamar Sekona and Kobe Pepe in their true freshmen seasons.

The most interesting aspect of the line was going to be the positioning of Drake Jackson. He led the team with 5.5 sacks as a true freshman but was scheduled to play outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s scheme. How effective would he be is taken off the line of scrimmage?

Overall, the line needed to cut down on the 162.3 yards per game it allowed on the ground in 2019 and keep the same pace in terms of pressuring the quarterback. Orlando’s scheme was going to bring pressure at all times from a variety of angles, but major injuries to inside linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu and Jordan Iosefa meant depth there was going to be tested, and the interior of the defensive line would need to hold up to help protect the middle.

What was delivered

It was a rough start for the run defense, as Arizona State rushed for 258 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener. It wasn’t a flawless season up front, but it was a step forward from last season and it came without Tufele in the middle.

USC allowed 153.3 yards per game on the ground and the defensive line accounted for 9.5 sacks in six games.

Marlon Tuipulotu began the season playing at an All-American level and his sack and forced fumble against Utah changed the tone of that game completely. He was neutralized a bit as the season wore on, but still turned in a season to be proud of in stepping his game up to account for the loss of Tufele.

Drake Jackson had a couple highlight-reel plays, including a pass rush that ended the Arizona State game and a nice interception while dropped into coverage against Utah. He had just two sacks as teams shifted protection toward his side and seemed to be a little hit or miss with the new outside linebacker position. He’s so important to the success of the defensive front that it could be frustrating at time to not see him simply lined up on the edge and rushing the passer. But he’s such a talent that he can still make plays when dropped off the line.

Tuli Tuipulotu and Nick Figueroa were revelations along the line. Figueroa led the team with 3.5 sacks and Tuipulotu had two of his own. With Tremblay missing a few games due to injury and being limited in others, USC absolutely needed everything the trio of the Tuipulotu brothers and Figueroa gave them this season.

Brandon Pili was seen a bit, as he was limited to four games due to injury and had five tackles. Pepe and Ta’ufo’ou played in just two games. The Trojans did not have Lichtenstein for much of the season as he elected to opt out before choosing to return about midway through the season.

What’s next?

The biggest question is whether Marlon Tuipulotu elects to return to USC for the 2021 season or declare for the 2021 NFL Draft. If he returns, this line looks ready to take another step forward next season. If he departs, pressure will likely shift to that young group of interior tackles as well as Alabama transfer Ishmael Sopsher, who could have the inside track at a starting spot.

The younger Tuipulotu and Figueroa won’t be surprises anymore next year, and raising their game even higher will be vital to the success up front.

Connor Murphy elected to enter the transfer portal earlier this week, so the Trojans lose a bit of depth at defensive end. Similar decisions await Tremblay and Pili, who both would have exhausted their eligibility this season but now have the option to return next year as the NCAA has granted an extra year of eligibility to all student-athletes. Both could return, test the NFL process or elect to play elsewhere for their final seasons.

USC didn’t get many answers from its young players this season, though Pepe getting some time as a true freshman was a good sign for his development. So’oto spoke many times about his shorter rotation and demands that playing time match practice production and intensity. It’s clear he was sending messages to some of this group and how they respond this offseason and during spring ball will be interesting.

Benton, Ta’ufo’ou, Lichtenstein, Sekona and Maninoa Tufono are all guys who will be asked to take that next step forward. Sopsher is absolutely a guy to watch this spring in terms of what kind of impact he can quickly make, and early enrollee Jay Toia brings the size and intensity that could allow him to quickly challenge some of the returning players. USC will have defensive end Colin Mobley on campus next fall and the biggest uncommitted prospect in the nation is still out there, as defensive end Korey Foreman will announce his commitment on Jan. 2. If the Trojans land him, he’ll likely slot in at the same position Drake Jackson played this season, though USC showed it could get two players at that position on the field at the same time, as Jackson and Hunter Echols were used together at various points this year.

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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