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USC’s defensive position battles will be ones to watch

The return of Alijah Vera-Tucker to the offensive line–and likely left tackle–means the most important position battle on that side of the ball is settled before the competition even began. The same isn’t true on the other side of the ball, where the departures of three significant starters and the arrival of a new defensive coordinator mean a number of positions could be up for grabs during fall camp.

USC claims eight returning starters on the defensive side, though that number balloons to 12 if you factor in all the players with starting or significant playing experience. That means the Trojans shouldn’t struggle to find reliable defensive pieces, but grouping the right ones that work together will be the test for defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and his position coaches.

Up front, the loss of Jay Tufele to the 2021 NFL Draft is a hit that cannot be understated. Still, the Trojans have Marlon Tuipulotu and Brandon Pili available in the middle of the line. And defensive end Caleb Tremblay is a guy who caught defensive line coach Vic So’oto’s eye early on. Stellar sophomore Drake Jackson is officially listed as an outside linebacker now and he might be one of the keys to making Orlando’s defense work, if he can master the ability to play that hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position.

The Trojans will have to find the right answers in the back seven, but the options are seemingly innumerable, with Talanoa Hufanga, Isaiah Pola-Mao, Chase Williams, Greg Johnson, Olaijah Griffin, Isaac Taylor-Stuart and Chris Steele all plenty talented and tested in the secondary, and a linebacker group that has a veteran leader in Jordan Iosefa, experience in Palaie Gaoteote and Kana’i Mauga, and a bunch of young talent.

With the offense likely to take a step forward in Year 2 under offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and so much returning talent, the defensive side of the ball could dictate the Trojans’ 2020 season. USC allowed at least 20 points in 11 of 13 games last season, and let opponents score at least 30 in six different contests, while allowing those teams to set a USC opponent record with 408.7 total yards per game.

Head coach Clay Helton said his experience coaching against Orlando was a big reason he was excited to bring in the former Texas coach. Helton cited the difficulty in preparing for the defense and also how quickly Orlando has produced results at all of his stops as reasons to be excited for his Trojan tenure. Helton called Orlando’s scheme ultra-aggressive and one that makes things difficult for college quarterbacks, adding that there exists a perfect marriage right now between Orlando’s system and USC’s personnel.

“The system fits our personnel right now,” Helton said. “It has the ability to jump in 4-down, go to an odd structure with 3-down, multiple coverages, multiple looks, hidden coverages that I think are hard on a quarterback, and he’s able to pressure from everywhere. I’ve gone against it as an offensive coordinator. I’ve gone against it as a head coach and it’s not easy.”

Though media was able to witness just one spring ball practice in person, the energy with which Orlando coached on the field was evident from before the first whistle. It’s something that is common in all four defensive coaches and has these defensive players eager to perform for this staff.

“If you’ve ever met T.O., that’s what he is,” Helton said. “He coaches as hard as the players practice. You get every ounce of energy that guy has to make his players better.”

With everybody going full speed as camp opens Friday, the defense should begin taking shape as position battles play out. Some spots are likely set in stone, as Hufanga and Pola-Mao are unlikely to be displaced as the safeties, Tuipulotu isn’t getting pushed out of the middle of the defensive line and Jackson is already a mainstay on the outside. Cornerbacks coach Donte Williams has to like what he has in Griffin, Steele and Taylor-Stuart, though finding a top two there could certainly count as a position battle.

The linebacker spots are where so much interest might lie, as Iosefa has plenty of experience but is returning from a season-ending knee injury suffered last fall. Gaoteote has plenty of talent but hasn’t quite put everything together through two years. And there is a major wildcard in Solomon Tuliaupupu, who missed his first two years due to injury but is as talented as maybe any defensive player on the USC roster. The linebacker depth chart is sprinkled with a number of other players who have shown flashes, like Mauga and Eli’jah Winston inside, or Abdul-Malik McClain and Hunter Echols outside.

It’s unlikely the Trojans will be able to rely on Tuipulotu and Pili alone to man the middle of the line all year, so the battles behind and alongside them should be extremely important. Of a group that features Connor Murphy, Nick Figueroa, Jacob Lichtenstein, Trevor Trout, De’jon Benton and Stanley Ta’ufo’ou, at least a small handful need to step up and announce their presence this fall in order for USC to put together a strong two-deep up front.

Asked about position battles this fall, Helton said his eyes will be on the defensive side of the ball.

“Anytime you have a new coordinator that brings in a new system, it’s about finding the right pieces that fit that system,” Helton said. “I think the major battles will be a lot on defense to be able to see what guys pick up the system fast and produce within that system. I think that’s at all positions.”

When asked what has stood out to him during the off-season work the coaches have been able to watch, Helton said he’s been impressed by wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and the crispness of the passing game between Kedon Slovis and the skill players. He also mentioned the secondary.

“Defensively, I think a huge part of this will come up to how we progress in the back end,” Helton said. “We made a significant investment in bringing Craig Naivar and Donte Williams in as two DB coaches—Craig controlling the safeties as well as Donte controlling our corners. To be able to see the progression of young players that played their first significant roles last year, and an Olaijah Griffin, a Chris Steele, and Isaac Taylor-Stuart, to see their progression. As well as, to see some safeties really become premier, elite players, like Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao and Chase Williams, Greg Johnson. To be able to be in those nickel packages and to see that group of men raise their level to an elite, platinum level I think is going to be really important for us this year and I’ve liked the progress that I’ve seen since July.”

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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