Here’s a look at some of the major offseason storylines surrounding a group that, as has been the trend in recent years at USC, looks poised to shine for the Trojans in 2014 – the defensive line.
Size all around
The performance of the defensive line was one of the highlights of the 2013 USC season, as they set the tone up front for a group that ranked No. 13 in the FBS in total defense and No. 15 against the run.
With a new position coach Chris Wilson running them through their paces, the switch from a 5-2 scheme to a 3-4 multiple-front system under defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, and the loss of some key contributors from last season including George Uko on the inside, plenty of questions remained heading into spring ball.
Thankfully for new USC head coach Steve Sarkisian, however, any concerns that might have existed were quickly erased. Even with the standout of the unit, Leonard Williams, out for the spring due to injury, this group produced at a high level, thanks in part to a pair of unfamiliar names on the interior who showed quite a bit of promise -- Delvon Simmons, who spent last season standing on the sideline after transferring to USC from Texas Tech, and Claude Pelon, who arrived in January from Mesa (Ariz.) Community College. That duo, flanking Antwaun Woods at DT, brings not only talent to the table, but with Simmons at 6-foot-6, 300 pounds, and Pelon at 6-5, 285 pounds, some tremendous size as well. Factor in the 6-5, 290-pound Williams, who will immediately reassume his starting role in place of either Simmons or Pelon when fall camp starts, and the 6-foot, 310-pound Woods, and it’s evident that the Trojans have some serious muscle in the trenches on defense.
And with Kenny Bigelow, Greg Townsend Jr. and Cody Temple providing depth up the middle, and Scott Starr, J.R. Tavai and Charles Burks looking strong on the outside at rush end, all of the pieces certainly look to be in place for the defensive line to, once again, have a very big year.
Buzz building around Williams
There isn’t a player on the Trojans roster receiving more attention heading into the fall than Williams, and for good reason. The 2013 All-American defensive lineman, who possesses a perfect combination of size, athleticism and technique, amassed 74 tackles with a team-high 13.5 tackles for loss and six sacks last season, despite playing with a torn labrum in his shoulder.
Having undergone offseason surgery to repair that injury, Williams missed spring practice, but the junior is expected to be 100 percent when fall camp opens up. Not surprisingly, he’s expected to have another big year and likely be a high first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, with ESPN.com’s Todd McShay currently projecting him as the top overall selection.
Woods taking next step
Showing up in the spring with a bulkier, more defined build, and a noticeably quicker first step, Woods drew praise from Sarkisian throughout the 15 practices. The USC head coach, at one point, went as far as to refer to the Woodland Hills (Calif.) Taft product as, “the standard on the defensive side of the ball.”
Woods, a junior with 10 career starts under his belt, was a solid contributor last season. However, he often had to come off the field when the defense went into the nickel package and it was obvious that he still had a ways to go in his overall development.
But if this past spring is any indication, he’s now turned the corner -- in more ways than one. Noticeably more vocal than he’s been in the past, Woods asserted himself as a team leader, and it was apparent that he’s someone who commands a high level of respect from those around him.
With the nose tackle expected to stay on the field more under Wilcox than under the previous regime, Woods has a chance to really make a name for himself in 2014 as the man in the middle of it all on defense, and it would appear as though he’s up to the task.
A Starr in the making?
Buried on the depth chart and hampered by a neck injury during his first two years on campus, Starr entered the spring as somewhat of an unknown commodity. Once he hit the field, however, it was impossible not to notice him.
Easily in the best shape of his career, both physically and mentally, Starr established himself as a force coming off the edge in the new system at rush end -- a standup outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid position coached by Wilson. The redshirt sophomore capped it all off with a stellar outing in the spring game when he racked up a game-high six stops, including three tackles for loss.
Still, that doesn’t mean that he has the starting job locked up just yet. That’s because he’s competing against a tested veteran in Tavai. A tough and versatile athlete, he’s provided stable production outside, as well as on the interior, throughout his career, so if Starr wants to come out on top in this position battle, he’ll need to continue in fall camp what he started in the spring.
Others who will potentially provide depth at rush end include Burks, a fourth-year junior who can also line up inside, as well as freshmen Don Hill – an early-entrant who missed the spring due to an Achilles injury -- Malik Dorton and Olajuwon Tucker.