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Plenty of question marks remain for Trojans' defense

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LOS ANGELES -- Was there anything more controversial or up for discussion than the 2014 USC Trojans' defense? It seemed that the defense and those that orchestrated it were front and center in some of the biggest upset losses by the Cardinal and Gold.

To fully understand the Trojans' title hopes for 2015 and this season's defense specifically, one must recall what went on in 2014 -- even with the great Leonard Williams at defensive tackle, reliable inside linebacker Hayes Pullard, and gifted underclassman linebacker Su'a Cravens.

The Trojans finished the 2014 season at 9-4 and coach Steve Sarkisian called his first campaign "a total success." If that's how the head coach viewed it, that's OK, but his defense certainly had its issues and if it had it played better, the Trojans might have played in a bowl game with national implications.

While the 2014 offense averaged 35.8 points per game, the defense gave up 25.1 per outing, and it didn't take long before the Trojans' faithful were pointing their collective fingers at defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who has been called a college head coach in waiting. It was in fourth-quarter crunch time defeats when the Trojans' defense got crunched and seemed to be at its worst -- physically, mentally and fundamentally.

In three of the four Trojans' losses last season, the defense was unable to keep fourth-quarter leads, or have you already forgotten the likes of that shocking 37-31 loss at Boston College, Arizona State's 38-34 Hail Mary debacle in the Coliseum, and the gut-wrenching 24-21 defeat on the next to last play of the game at Utah?

Without even discussing the UCLA's lopsided end-of-season 38-20 domination of the Men of Troy, no wonder the football alumni went public early and started screaming and writing about the schemes and the Trojans' overall defensive discipline.

So what's the good news for 2015?

All that negativity should be history for now, and like nature's spring rebirth comes a new football season full of renewed hope and optimism. It's amazing what a spring practice and an offseason can do for regeneration of the mind and body.

As you are aware, the 2015 Trojans have been given some real preseason love and most gurus and soothsayers say that Sarkisian's club is a top-10 team and a threat to make it into the College Football Playoff. At worst, the Trojans are being picked to play in the 2016 Rose Bowl, which wouldn't be a bad consolation prize.

In fairness to Wilcox, 2014 was the first season of his defensive schemes, and the Trojans were still trying to rebound from NCAA sanctions where defensive depth was an obvious issue. However, far too many times defensive discipline and the lack of aggressiveness reared its ugly head. The party line this season is the Trojans' defense now understands Wilcox's schemes and strategies to the point where they can just play and react and not think too much.

But there are still plenty of question marks for 2015.

The Trojans' defensive line is a major question mark, no doubt. There is not a take-charge lineman like Leonard Williams, and while the talented incoming freshmen bring quality talent, they also bring a lack of experience. Wilcox will be hopeful that while the freshmen get their feet wet in a hurry, veteran senior linemen such as Delvon Simmons, Antwaun Woods, and Claude Pelon can up their game and collectively replace Big Cat Williams.

The linebacker situation almost mirrors the defensive line. There are depth challenges, and it will be no easy task replacing respected defensive captain Hayes Pullard, an inside linebacker who was vastly underrated for not only for his play but his leadership. The Trojans are counting on the return of senior Lamar Dawson, who was given high praise during the spring and summer workouts. Senior inside linebacker Anthony Sarao returns and could be a special player, but keep an eye out for true freshman inside linebacker Cameron Smith, who surprised in spring ball.

The defensive bright spot is junior linebacker Su'a Cravens, who next season will probably be drawing a Sunday paycheck from the NFL. Cravens could establish himself as one of Troy's all-time stars if he stays healthy and lives up to the hype. All indications are Cravens will validate all of his preseason press clippings.

In the explosive world of Pac-12 offenses, the Trojans' secondary will be tested repeatedly. Optimism abounds with the return of multi-talented corner Adoree' Jackson, who surpassed his prep All-America credentials to become a college Freshman All-America. Opposite Jackson is experienced senior Kevon Seymour, who could be pushed by true freshman Iman “Biggie” Marshall, who has greatness written all over him.

Look for opponents to focus their attacks on the Trojans' safety positions. Junior Leon McQuay III had a real up and down 2014, but the Trojans are attributing McQuay's unbalanced season to a challenging learning curve. Next to McQuay, who will be challenged by sophomore Chris Hawkins for a starting spot, will be impressive sophomore John Plattenburg, who exceeded all expectations as a freshman.

A major key to the 2015 defense, however, will be how fast a very impressive group of incoming freshmen perform. Already linebacker prospects Porter Gustin and Osa Masina have stood out in summer workouts. However, the biggest key will be the development of physically impressive defensive linemen Noah Jefferson, Jacob Daniel, and Rasheem Green. Their development could be critical to the Trojans' depth.

Of course, the last key to a successful 2015 defensive season will be Wilcox. They say a team or unit reflects it's coach or coordinator, and at least publically Wilcox's demeanor doesn't come across as fire and brimstone. Then again, maybe that demeanor doesn't have to be fire and brimstone. It figures that if the Trojans' defense can play championship-caliber defense, the perception of Wilcox, and the heat on him, will subside immeasurably.

And if the Trojans' 2015 defense needs any more inspiration or philosophical direction, they only need to remember one of football's greatest principles: Offense scores points but defense wins championships.