Friday, May 17, 2013
Offseason storylines: D-line better in 2013?
By Johnny Curren
The surprise position group of the 2012 USC season, and a collection of talent that shined once again this past spring, was the defensive line. Here's a look at some of the top storylines of the offseason for Ed Orgeron's group:
Compiling 38 sacks combined this past fall, the stellar play of the defensive line was one of the highlights in an otherwise up-and-down season for the Trojans. Losing just one key contributor from that group in defensive end Wes Horton, expectations were sky high for the unit heading into spring ball, yet questions remained. After all, with the switch from the team's previous 4-3 alignment to a 5-2 look under new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, many wondered if the Trojans had the personnel and talent to pull it off.
But after 15 practices in March and April, it's safe to say those questions have been erased. Playing fast, aggressive and quick to the ball, the defensive line established itself as the heart and soul of the defense and there's reason to believe they're on the verge of an even more impressive 2013 campaign.
Battle at nose
As a redshirt freshman last spring, Antwaun Woods battled for a starting D-line spot. A year later, he has asserted himself as the man to beat at nose guard.
There arguably isn't a more crucial piece of the puzzle in Pendergast's 5-2 defense than the position responsible for controlling the A-gaps, the nose tackle. Stepping up to the challenge to handle those responsibilities with the first team throughout the spring was redshirt sophomore Antwaun Woods. Appearing to be in the best shape of his career, he was noticeably quicker and more mobile, and he certainly showed he can be a valuable contributor this fall.
Still, the competition isn't over just yet. In fact, Woods currently shares the top spot on the post-spring depth chart with Cody Temple, who made a big statement with his play despite missing the majority of the spring to injury. Also showing promise was early entry freshman Kenny Bigelow. Possessing an imposing 6-foot-3, 295-pound build and unique physical skills, he was dominant at times but also inconsistent. A summer in the weight room and out on the field working on his conditioning could pay big dividends, and he just might factor heavily into the discussion here.
Ready to shine on the edge
Making a flawless adjustment from playing with a hand down in the old 4-3 set as defensive ends to standing up as outside linebackers in the new 5-2 look, both Devon Kennard and Morgan Breslin were standouts in the spring.
Kennard's performance, in particular, was more than welcomed for Orgeron and Co. Showing no ill effects of the torn pectoral muscle that forced him to miss last season, he was a major thorn in the side of the offensive line from his SAM linebacker spot. Breslin, who amassed a team-leading 13 sacks in 2012, looked solid at Predator linebacker, most notably in the spring game, when he came up with 3.5 sacks. With the Trojans now possessing two potential threats off the edge, it should be interesting to see what kind of impact they make on the passing attacks of the opposition this fall.
A star in the making
Nobody made a more eye-popping first-year impression for the Trojans last season than Leonard Williams. Starting nine games at the three-technique defensive tackle spot, he amassed 64 tackles and eight sacks on his way to 2012 Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors. The best part, however, is that Williams is still getting better -- a fact made evident this spring.
Standing 6-foot-5 with his weight up to 290 pounds, Williams was an incredibly disruptive force throughout the slate of practices, giving the defense what Kiffin has often referred to as an SEC-style lineman on the interior. Having shown so much promise already, there's certainly reason to believe he'll continue to develop this offseason, which would mean more postseason accolades in 2013.
The performance of the Trojans' starting defensive line was one of the leading stories of the spring to be sure, but an element of uncertainty still exists when it comes to whether or not Orgeron's group has the kind of depth necessary to spearhead the defense through the 2013 season, particularly after adding just two new faces to the unit in the most recent recruiting class in Bigelow and outside linebacker Quinton Powell.
The return from injury of J.R. Tavai midway through the spring workouts, as well as the emergence of somewhat of a surprise in Charles Burks, did provide reason for optimism at end behind Williams and George Uko, however. The addition of Greg Townsend Jr. -- who missed the entire spring while recuperating from 2012 knee surgery -- also will give the team a boost here in the fall. Temple and Bigelow, too, should team up well with Woods to provide stability at the nose position.
Still, there's little doubt Orgeron would prefer more bodies here, and the Trojans are sure to load up on defensive linemen in the next recruiting class. For now, though, USC will move forward with what is a somewhat thin but talent-laden group.