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Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Trojans front seven rounding into form

By Garry Paskwietz

LOS ANGELES -- The Trojans get back to the practice field on Tuesday afternoon after taking a week off for spring break, and the development of a talented defensive front seven will be on display.

In particular, there are several players who had previously played limited roles but could now be looking to step into bigger roles after what they’ve shown through the initial spring sessions.

Antwaun Woods
Antwaun Woods could have an expanded role in 2014.
Along the line, Antwaun Woods appears ready to solidify his status as a nose tackle capable of a full-time starting spot. Woods does have 10 career starts under his belt -- to go along with 35 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and four sacks -- but his contribution was limited last year because he came out of games when the Trojans used their nickel package.

Now Woods has bulked up to 315 pounds, and with his 6-foot frame, he has what USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox calls “natural leverage.”

Not only has Woods made physical progress, he is also showing a more vocal leadership style in practice. During the first day in pads, there was a team drill held late in the day and Woods was front and center in the middle of the line getting his defensive mates fired up and challenging the offense. That's a side not previously seen from Woods and a sign of his veteran status within the team, something that could help provide a solid anchor in the middle of the Trojans D-line.

On the outside -- at either the OLB spot or stand-up DE spot depending on the alignment -- is a trio of long and athletic players in Quinton Powell, Scott Starr and Jabari Ruffin.

In the 4-3, Starr is the stand-up end in much the same role Clay Matthews played late in his USC career. He has very good pursuit speed when he gets into the backfield. Looking for his first start, Starr had 11 tackles in 2013 in a reserve role.

Powell and Ruffin are currently battling at the spot opposite Starr, an outside linebacker position where Sarkisian hopes to take advantage of their physical dimensions to cause problems for opposing quarterbacks in passing lanes. Ruffin has one start under his belt -- the 2013 season opener against Hawaii -- and has 22 career tackles. Powell made his share of impactful hits last season as a true freshman, primarily on special teams, and ended the season with 20 tackles.

The early returns from the opening week of spring indicate that the Trojans front seven could be one of the best in the conference, and it looks like these players will have a much bigger role in the coming year.