USC has some talented pieces returning on the defensive line. One coming off a breakout freshman season and poised for a new role as a sophomore. Another after considering an early departure for the NFL. And another coming back to be a third-year starter.
The one exception is one of the defensive end positions. There, USC must replace Christian Rector, a senior captain who graduated following 2019. There is no clear answer as to who will take Rector’s job, but there are several possibilities on the roster.
Here’s a look at USC’s defensive line position entering the 2020 season:
On the roster
The headliner for this position group is sophomore Drake Jackson. But last year’s breakout star on defense will not be spending all of his time at defensive end in 2020.
Jackson, who had 5.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss last season, will take on the role of the B-backer in Todd Orlando’s new defense. It’s a hybrid position that can drop back like a linebacker or rush the passer off the edge.
Jackson has expressed confidence in being able to play linebacker, noting that he participated in seven-on-seven during the summers in high school. So as the defense rotates between three- and four-man fronts, Jackson will have a place to play.
There are other options for USC at defensive end to replace Rector. Caleb Tremblay bounced back and forth between end and tackle last season, showing flashes with two sacks as a junior. Redshirt junior Nick Figueroa could also see some time.
Redshirt senior Connor Murphy was serviceable last season when Rector was out with injury, recording five tackles and a sack in 13 games. Jacob Lichtenstein is coming back after sitting out last season due to a knee injury.
The defensive line was buoyed by the return of Jay Tufele for his junior year. At 6-foot-3 and 315 pounds, Tufele can play nose tackle in a three-man front or play in a two-tackle formation. So can Marlon Tuipulotu, a junior looking to start for his third year in a row.
The tackle pool is rounded out by senior Brandon Pili and redshirt sophomore Trevor Trout. In limited snaps as a junior, Pili recorded five tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Trout, who saw limited action in 2019, is coming off wrist surgery this past winter.
Then there’s redshirt freshman De’jon Benton, who did appear in four games last season, making three tackles as he gathered some experience. Another player coming off a redshirt is Stanley Ta’ufo’ou.
True freshman tackle Kobe Pepe enrolled at USC in January after graduating early from St. John Bosco. He is coming off an 80-tackle senior season at Bosco in which he was named the All-CIF Division 1 Defensive Player of the Year.
On the way
In addition to Pepe, USC signed two defensive linemen in the 2020 recruiting class. Lawndale tackle Tuli Tuipulotu, the younger brother of Marlon, is a three-star recruit who will join the Trojans when fall camp starts. So will tackle Jamar Sekona, another three-star prospect.
USC has two defensive linemen committed for the 2021 class: Four-star Grace Brethren tackle Jay Toia and three-star DeMartha (Md.) end Colin Mobley.