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What we’re missing: Defensive line

Few positions on the USC roster returned for this spring with more veteran talent than the Trojans’ defensive line group. That, coupled with new position coach Vic So’oto made the USC Trojans defensive line group must-watch football this spring.

Without spring ball from the defensive line, we miss an opportunity to get our first real look at the violent mindset these defensive coaches were set to install. Overall, it’s Todd Orlando’s defense and his mentality, but no coach or position had the chance to put it on display more frequently than the defensive line.

With Marlon Tuipulotu, Jay Tufele, Brandon Pili, Caleb Tremblay, Drake Jackson and Connor Murphy, the Trojans have a proven core, capable of staking a claim as the best unit in the conference. But spring ball was going to be a chance for the group to showcase its depth.

Nick Figueroa, Stanley Ta’ufo’ou, De’jon Benton and Trevor Trout were all another year along in the system. And early enrollee Kobe Pepe had an opportunity to show where he belonged on the depth chart as well.

The overall performance of the defensive line was going to have to be taken with a grain of salt. We’ve seen that group look terrific over the course of a few spring sessions and then not quite live up to that perceived level come fall. It was more the attitude and demeanor with which the group played with that might have provided a few hints about how potent they might be this coming season.

We’re also missing out on seeing exactly how the individual players fit into this defensive scheme.

Orlando said during his introductory news conference that he’d like to split pretty evenly between a three and four-man front. So’oto then said he likes defenders who can switch seamlessly between those formations. But there were plenty of questions as to whether USC defensive linemen are actually capable of that, and which ones can do it best.

So’oto certainly seemed comfortable stepping onto the field without an established depth chart and letting players prove themselves. Early on, he had some glowing praise for Tremblay, as well as Tuipulotu. How would those two look once the pads came on? And how high could Tufele take his game this new look after being named to the First Team All-Pac-12 Defense last season?

Defensive ends sliding into that 4i position is absolutely a change, and if reps, reps, reps are the key to adjusting to a new scheme, there’s no real way to sugarcoat the fact that the USC defensive line is going to be behind schedule without spring ball.

But the biggest question that won’t be answered this spring is how Jackson fits into this defense. Jackson worked with both the defensive line and linebacker during individual drills in the only practice of spring ball. Afterward, he said he was playing “B” ‘backer, which has him standing up as a linebacker out on the edge. We’ve seen enough of Jackson’s acrobatics to know he’s athletic enough to handle that, but it’ll likely be a while before we–and more importantly, the coaches–see it in action.

Previous What We’re Missing posts:
Running back
Wide receiver
Tight end
Offensive line

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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