defensive line – Press Enterprise

defensive line – Press Enterprise

The USC football team expected to enter the 2020 season with a defensive line loaded with potential NFL talent and experience. But opt outs and injury have left more question marks than previously anticipated for the Trojans.

It doesn’t mean USC doesn’t have the talent to have a solid line; just that there’s less margin for error than previously expected.

Here’s a breakdown of where USC stands at defensive line:

Key returnees: De’jon Benton (R-Fr.), Nick Figueroa (Jr.), Connor Murphy (Sr.), Brandon Pili (Sr.), Stanley Ta’ufo’ou (R-Fr.), Caleb Tremblay (Sr.), Maninoa Tufono (R-Fr.), Marlon Tuipulotu (Jr.)

Key losses: Christian Rector, Jay Tufele

Newcomers: Kobe Pepe, Jamar Sekona, Tuli Tuipulotu

Biggest unanswered question: Is Pili ready to be a starting defensive tackle? The senior has largely served in a reserve role through his career. As a junior, he had 18 tackles, and five for loss including 1.5 sacks, while playing in all 13 games, with one start.

But the decision of Tufele to opt out of the 2020 season and prepare for the NFL Draft puts pressure on Pili to replace that expected production at tackle. He said as much in a press conference in the first week of training camp, saying it’s his job to step in and make sure USC doesn’t lose a step.

Why 2020 production could be better: The Trojans have two stalwarts at defensive tackle in Pili and Marlon Tuipulotu. They will be complemented by Drake Jackson, now listed as a linebacker who will be serving as a hybrid end. If Jackson flourishes in this new position, expect his production to lift that of everyone around him.

An ankle injury hampered Rector for most of 2019 and prevented him from being effective at containment for much of the year. Having someone like Connor Murphy manning the position at full health could provide a boost for USC.

Plus, improved coverage by a secondary that was very young last season could give the defensive line more opportunities for sacks in pass rush situations.

Why 2020 production could be worse: Age and experience are concerns once you get past the projected starters at defensive line. Tremblay has 18 career tackles, while Figueroa has 10. Beyond them, there are only redshirt and true freshmen backing up the position after Jacob Lichtenstein opted out and Trevor Trout was ruled out with a back injury.

So if the worst happens and Pili or Tuipulotu suffers a serious injury, the Trojans will have to put a lot of faith in some unproven players.