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Previewing Alabama vs. USC: The Trojan defense

Though depth is an issue, the Trojans have the raw talent across the board to compete with the Tide on Saturday night

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship Game-Southern California vs Stanford
Adoree Jackson is half of the Trojan cornerback tandem...he good, y’all.
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, USC has the unenviable task of facing Alabama in a season opener, an endeavor which, during the reign of Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa, has unerringly ended in a Tide victory. Sure, the Trojans must do what few teams have ever accomplished in matching wits, brawn and talent with the Tide for four quarters in pursuit of a win. Vegas, like most of America, isn’t convinced that Southern Cal has what it takes to beat Alabama at home, let alone on a neutral field that is as good as home for an Alabama team that generally plays well on the road in front of a Tide fan base that travels extremely well.

Yes, the odds are against the Trojans when they take the field against the Tide on Saturday night. But to think that the Trojans won’t be salty after a summer of hearing about the greatness of their opening opponent is fool-hardy. To think that a program with the tradition of excellence trumpeted by USC will simply curl up like a lapdog when confronted with the might of the Tide is unrealistic. The Trojans will be ready, and they will be motivated to perform on easily their biggest stage since the departure of Pete Carroll to the NFL. One has to imagine the Tide will get their best effort to start the game.

Though the Trojans have a sharp offense with a mauling line, a veteran running back corps and an explosive group of receivers almost as deep as the one fielded by their opponent from T-town, it may be the USC defense that will give Alabama the most trouble. With talent at every position and the leadership of new (sorta) defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergrast, the Trojan defense may have what it takes to give Alabama’s reconstructed offense fits early on.

The defensive line is talented, if not experienced. The secondary, particularly at corner, is as good as one will find outside of Tuscaloosa this season. The linebackers are something of a question mark, but if they can settle into place, they have the talent to be the sturdy heart of the USC defense. The defensive style employed by Pendergrast is built to foul up semi-spread pro-style systems like the one favored by Bama offensive coordinator (and former USC head coach) Lane Kiffin. Couple the potential potency of the USC defense with an Alabama offense that will start a new quarterback, two new tailbacks and a reconstructed right side of the O line, and you have the recipe for early-game offensive frustration for the Crimson Tide.

How exactly will the Trojan defense attack a nubile, untested Alabama offense led by a coordinator they know all too well? Do they really have the talent to match player-for-player with Bama’s insanely deep roster of offensive skill position talent? We’ll know soon. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look.

The Roster

After graduating a bevy of talented defensive playmakers across the front seven, the Trojan defense has the unenviable task of finding suitable replacements in the first game under the live-fire of the Alabama offense. The USC defensive roster has size, and it has talent, even if there are question marks at many positions. What it lacks, in many positions, is experienced depth, and that is enough to give the Trojan coaches pause as they stare down the barrel of Kiffin’s gun (regardless of who is pulling the trigger.)

The Trojans will run a base 5-2 defense this season, which is somewhat deceptively named. The 5-2 does not feature five defensive linemen per se, but rather three down linemen (a nose and two ends or a nose, a tackle and an end) with the outside linebackers lining up on the edges on the line of scrimmage. The OLBs are basically defensive ends, only they play standing up rather than out of a three point stance. More on that later….

In the 5-2 defense, there must be a strong nose tackle who is comfortable with one-gapping. Fortunately for the Trojans, they have a good one in monster sophomore nose Noah Jefferson (6’6”, 315), one of few seasoned on the defense. Jefferson recorded 23 tackles last season, and will be expected to anchor the interior of the defense in 2016. Unlike the nose in the 3-4 defense who is called upon to two-gap, the 5-2 allows Jefferson to focus on a single gap, making a man with his size and strength an effective impediment to running the ball between the tackles as well as a pocket-crushing force in pass rush. The Trojans’ front seven this season will hinge on the ability of Jefferson to play his role, and if the past is an indicator, they will be in good shape. The nose is one of the few spots on the defense at which the Trojans have quality depth, as spelling Jefferson will be fellow sophomore Jacob Daniel (6’4”, 310 pounds), another massive tackle who can snare up the interior and soak up blocks.

The left side defensive end is another sophomore who saw action as a freshman last season, Rasheem Green. Green (6’5”, 280 pounds) is your prototypical defensive end, with a massive wing span and the athleticism to play tight end if the Trojans needed him to. In limited action last season, Green turned heads, recording 19 tackles, one tackle for loss and half a sack. Behind Green is redshirt freshman Christian Rector (6’5”, 275 pounds) another talented-but-unseasoned potential star in the making who will alternate with Green often in 2016.

At right side defensive end, the Trojans will have another semi-veteran in redshirt sophomore Malik Dorton (6’2”, 280 pounds). Dorton, a converted linebacker, has been around the program for three years, but his playing time has been rather limited. In 2015, for example, he recorded two tackles. Dorton is aggressive and has a low center of gravity, and in the 5-2 defense he will functionally play as another tackle (albeit a light one). On run packages, expect to see Dorton spelled by the bigger Kevin Scott (6’5”, 300 pounds), a massive redshirt freshman tackle-turned-end who has nice athleticism for a man of his size.

The trio of D linemen will be flanked in most circumstances by the two outside linebackers. Likely to get the start at the Sam position is junior Uchenna Nwasu (6’3”, 243 pounds), a veteran with fantastic size and instincts. Nwasu played a good bit in 2015, and he recorded 31 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry. The big linebacker would be tailor-made for the Jack linebacker position in the Tide’s defense, and as the Sam in the 5-2, he is called upon to play a very similar role (forcing the run and rushing the passer). Nwasu is strong in that role, and if lined up against some of the Tide’s greener linemen, he may give Alabama fits early on.

Behind Nwasu at Sam LB is Oluwole Betiku (6’3”, 250 pounds), a true freshman who has shot up the depth chart at the position over the summer. While he has absolutely no live-fire experience at the college level, USC coaches think Betiku could be a disruptive presence as he grows into the position behind Nwasu.

In the nomenclature of Pendergrast’s USC defense, the other outside linebacker is known as the Predator LB. The Trojans have another salty starter at the position in massive sophomore Porter Gustin (6’5”, 260 pounds), who despite his designation, is a defensive end by nature. With cat-like quickness and a nose for the quarterback, Gustin will cause havoc in the Tide offensive backfield whenever he’s not lined up against Cam Robinson, and though freshman Tide right tackle Jonah Williams has been impressive, the prospect of lining a freshman up across from the likes of Gustin should be cause for concern. Gustin recorded 25 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble as a freshman in 2015, and one can expect him to pick up where he left off in Pendergrast’s simplified, aggressive scheme this season.

The Trojans once again have some depth behind the starter, with redshirt senior Jabari Ruffin (6’3”, 245 pounds) holding down the reserve role. Ruffin has been around through many transitions at USC, and he can be counted upon to provide steady leadership on the field or the sidelines.

At the middle linebacker positions, the Trojans took a blow recently with the suspension of presumed starter at the Will linebacker spot, sophomore Osa Masina. Masina (6’4”, 230 pounds) played extensively last season as a true freshman, recording 25 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a quarterback hurry and a fumble recovery. With Masina scheduled to miss the opening game, rugged senior Quinton Powell (6’2, 200 pounds) will likely start on the weakside, and his veteran leadership should lend a steadying presence to the Trojan defense. Not nearly the force that Masina would have been, Powell is quick and basically brings safety size and speed to the linebacker position. That could be a blessing or a liability depending on how the Alabama offense chooses to attack, as it’s hard to imagine Powell having a tremendous amount of luck against Alabama’s jumbo back Bo Scarbrough.

At the Mike linebacker position, the Trojans are well-equipped with Cameron Smith (6’2”, 245 pounds), a physical playmaker who was second on the team in tackles last season even though he played in only 10 games due to injury. Smith is the beating heart of the Trojan defense, and even though he’s a sophomore, he is as skilled and savvy as he is physical. Last season, Smith posted 78 tackles, a sack, three interceptions and six passes defended. It’s hard to imagine a guy with Smith’s size being excellent in coverage as well, but the numbers simply do not lie. Smith’s face-off with the Alabama tailbacks/ offensive line will be an intriguing point of focus in the game, as if Alabama can neutralize Smith’s impact and limit his disruptiveness between the tackles, then the Trojans will have little hope of stopping Alabama’s ground-and-pound.

Again, the Trojans have quality depth behind Smith, as senior Michael Hutchings will see the field. Hutchings, like Powell, is a different style of linebacker than the man starting in front of him, as he weighs in at 6’1”, 215 pounds. Like Powell, his safety-like size could be useful if Alabama elects to sling a lot of short passes, but if Alabama decides to manhandle the Trojan front seven, that size could work against him.

The Trojan secondary is the best unit on the entire defense, especially the corners. While the safeties were prone to getting turned around and torched last season, returning starters Adoree Jackson and Iman Marshall are one of the elite cornerback tandems in the nation.

Jackson (5’11”, 185 pounds) is the more hyped of the two corners, and for good reason. With excellent speed (the Trojans use him as a wide receiver as well), good hip swivel and fantastic instincts, Jackson is likely the most naturally-talented corner in the PAC-12 this season. In 2015, Jackson recorded 35 tackles, an interception, eight passes broken-up, nine passes defended and a forced fumble. The junior will seek to improve upon his 2015 campaign and turn the heads of NFL scouts in what could be his last year in SoCal.

To his own credit, Marshall (6’1”, 200 pounds) has quietly become one of the better corners in the PAC-12 in Jackson’s shadow. An argument could be made that despite the hype, Marshall is actually a more polished corner than Jackson. With fantastic size for the position and heady play, Marshall cannot be targeted by teams wishing to avoid throwing in the direction of Jackson. In 2015, Marshall benefitted from that dynamic, as teams challenged him as the supposed lesser of the two corners…and they paid the price. If Jackson’s stats were good, Marshall’s were marvelous, as he posted 67 tackles, three interceptions, nine passes broken-up and 12 passes defended. Marshall is big and aggressive without being reckless, a tight-rope that the best corners walk with ease. Alabama will have to pick its poison when challenging the Trojan corners, as both men have tremendous playmaking ability, a nose for the football, and the physical characteristics to match-up against the Tide’s stellar receiving corps.

Spelling Jackson and Marshall will be Isaiah Langley (6’, 170 pounds) and Jonathan Lockett (5’11”, 180 pounds), respectively. While the two have some experience (Langley is a sophomore; Lockett is a junior), neither have the ideal size to match up with Alabama’s elite wide receivers. Both will likely see the field in relief of the playmakers in the first-string, but one can imagine that if either Jackson or Marshall takes a breather, the man behind him will be targeted by Kiffin and the Alabama offense.

As good as the corners are, the Trojan safeties are equally as unspectacular. It’s not that they are inept, but rather, they are prone to being victimized by big plays both through the air and the ground. Not to mention, both men are smallish for the position at under 200 pounds, something that won’t bode well when facing the full power of the Tide’s running attack. Both strong safety John Plattenburg (5’11”, 180 pounds) and free safety Chris Hawkins (5’11”, 185 pounds) are juniors, and both men have seen extensive playing time in previous seasons.

Plattenburg had a nice year in 2015, with 35 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. He was used as a blitzer from time to time, though that role may not be the same under Pendergrast, who relies primarily on the OLBs to attack the quarterback. Hawkins was also active in 2015, recording 70 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Both safeties may lack in physical measurables for the position, but neither represents a glaring weakness in the Trojan secondary. They are workmanlike and steady, though as previously stated, their size and propensity to allowing the big play over the top may be a boon for Alabama’s offense.

USC has depth behind Plattenburg and Hawkins, with senior Leon McQuay (6’1”, 195 pounds) and sophomore Marvell Tell (6’3, 190 pounds) backing them up, respectively. McQuay is a salty veteran with the size to lend a hand in run defense, and Tell is the Trojan free safety of the future. In his initial season on campus, Tell recorded 34 tackles in 2015 in a reserve role, and one can expect his playing time to increase this season. Tell is also the nickel defensive back in many cases, as Pendergrast will shift to the nickel when teams line up more than three wide receivers.

How the Trojan defense will attack Alabama’s offense

To understand the likely strategy USC will use to contain Alabama’s star-laden offense, one must first know a little about the man in charge…Clancy Pendergrast.

Pendergrast is one of few men in the coaching ranks today to have great success at both the college and pro levels. At every stop in his recent career, he has taken an underperforming, raggedy defense and turned it into a league-leading, smooth-running machine.

For example, Pendergrast, in his previous stint with USC in 2013 (before being dropped at the start of the Steve Sarkisian tenure), took what was the seventh-ranked defense in the PAC-12 in 2012 to the top spot in 2013. Not only did that Trojan defensive unit in 2013 rank as the best in the conference, but it placed nationally in the top-20 (13th best, to be exact).

Previously, as defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals during their heyday, he transformed the NFL’s 26th best defense (out of 32 teams) into a respectable unit that ranked 12th by the end of his first season in the desert. In his four-year stint with the Cardinals, Pendergrast’s defenses routinely held opponents below 300 yards of total offense per game, which is quite a feat in today’s high-octane pro game.

He reproduced this rejuvenation again in the PAC-12 during his stint at Cal. The Bears were the fourth-worst defense in the league when Pendergrast arrived, and by the end of his first year, they were ranked as the league’s best defense. Anyone see a pattern here?

This track record of success with struggling defenses is one reason the Trojan faithful rejoiced at his hiring by first-year head coach Clay Helton.

One reason that Pendergrast is able to quickly turn around underperforming defenses is his preferred system, the 5-2 defense. Most are familiar with the traditional 4-3, or the 3-4, but the 5-2 defense combines the strengths of both while eliminating their inherent weaknesses.

Despite the name, the 5-2 doesn’t necessarily mean it features five defensive linemen and two linebackers…at least that is not technically true. The 5-2 base features the three down linemen of the 3-4: a big, space-eating, block-sopping nose, and two defensive ends (or an end and a tackle, situationally) who put their hands in the dirt. The nose typically plays a 1-technique towards the offense’s strong side, and the other down linemen adjust accordingly.

However, the “5” in the 5-2 isn’t an absolute lie, as the defense lines up two outside linebackers at the line of scrimmage on the outside shoulders of the would-be ends. The difference? The OLBs don’t put a hand in the dirt, but rather play standing-up at the snap. The defense presents itself as a five-man front, but technically it is a three-man set with a linebacker on either end. The primary responsibilities of the OLBs in the 5-2 are to rush the passer, force the run inside, and rush the passer (said it twice for emphasis). The OLBs typically aren’t as athletic as the ones you’ll see in a straight 3-4 defense, as they aren’t asked to drop into coverage often, if at all. They are defensive ends for all intents and purposes, and they are asked to do defensive end-type things exclusively.

The inside linebackers line up behind the three down linemen in support, and flow to the interior gaps in support of run plays, though they can also drop into coverage if necessary.

Why is this innovative? For one, it allows the defense to embrace the flexibility and anti-run qualities of the 3-4 set, but with the personnel of a four-man front. The defensive line looks like a 3-4, but plays in the style typically demanded of a 4-3 Under. The outside linebackers are basically proxy defensive ends, and they are built as such. For example, Porter Gustin goes 6’5”, 260 pounds…a few pones of cornbread shy of prototypical defensive end specs.

The 5-2 defense has the strength of the 3-4 minus its one primary difficulty. Most 3-4 defenses are two-gap systems. These defenses require the defensive linemen to be accountable for two gaps each. They have to make a read at the snap and defend the appropriate gap (out of the two) accordingly. Sometimes this works. Sometimes, spread, hurry-up run-based offenses (we know who I’m talking about) can take advantage of a two-gapping defense with misdirection.

In Pendergrast’s 5-2, however, the three down linemen (and the outside linebackers for that matter) are one-gappers. They don’t have to make a read at the snap, but rather have responsibility for a single gap and can aggressively attack it without the hesitation required to make a read. It’s quite effective in that in allows defenders to play faster, as they know their responsibility pre-snap and need only to execute it. The 5-2 is simple to learn, easy to adjust on the fly based on an opponent’s tendencies and scheme, and is focused on creating a tremendous amount of pressure, with five defenders attacking the line of scrimmage in a straight line.

This is the defense Alabama will see when they are in a run look, or when they are running a formation with two wides with a tight. But the Trojan defense isn’t a one-trick pony. As a resident of the pass-happy PAC-12, they have a contingency nickel defense that they slide into when the offense lines up more than three wides.

When offenses attempt to spread the formation with multiple receivers, the Trojans will go into a nickel 2-4-5 defense, bringing on an extra defensive back. In reality, their iteration of the nickel will look like a 4-2-5, since USC will keep the OLBs on the line of scrimmage as pass rushers, instead pulling the nose out of the package altogether with the threat of a run diminished. This allows the Trojans to still rush four while adding the all-important fifth defensive back (which will likely be the aforementioned Marvell Tell). The linemen and OLBs are once again asked to attack the quarterback, rushing the passer as one-gappers.

Truth be told, the Trojan defense with Pendergrast at the helm has the type of system to give Alabama fits Saturday night. The Trojans also have what many other opponents do not have, and that’s world-class talent that fits well within the confines of the system the coordinator is asking the players to execute. The novel defensive scheme and excellent athletes on the field will pose quite a test for an Alabama offense that has new faces at many key positions in the season opener.

What will happen?

Given that it’s the first game of the season, expect Alabama to have a little breaking-in period against the Trojan defense. After all, Alabama doesn’t see much 5-2, and an aggressive front attacking a rebuilt offensive line with new running backs and an untested quarterback under center could make for some uncomfortable moments early on. The Trojan attack, at least in the early going, will be ferocious. The front seven will play fast, and they’ll likely be disruptive as Alabama looks to find its offensive rhythm.

One way that the 5-2 can be victimized on short and modest gains is on the edges, particularly with screens outside of the hashes. With only two true linebackers roving the middle of the field while the other two are dedicated pass rushers, the screen would seem tailor-made to allow the aggressive front to penetrate while the running backs take advantage of the open territory on the edges just beyond the line of scrimmage. Smith is an excellent player at middle linebacker, but the other options the Trojans will have on tap are smallish, and wouldn’t fare well in one-on-one collision with the Tide’s Scarbrough in the open field. Expect Alabama to get its quarterback in the rhythm and dampen the ferocity of the Trojan rush with some screen action intermingled with short passes into the slot, at least until the quarterback (whomever he may be) gets his feet under him and the offensive line can diagnose the Trojan tendencies up front.

Honestly, if one was to pick a weak point on the Trojan defense, it would have to be the defensive line. Sure, there are some decent players up front, a few big bodies, several players with meaningful snaps on their respective ledgers. However, the line is largely untested, and the depth is highly suspect at this point in the season. USC’s defensive line, whether in terms of run stopping or rushing the passer, is nowhere near the quality of the defensive unit the Tide will field this year. And if one considers that the Tide line has spent the spring and summer banging heads against their defensive counterparts, the Trojans would be hard pressed to do anything that this line hasn’t seen before.

Alabama’s MO in recent years has been a frontal assault with the running game against similarly arrayed defensive front sevens, and one can expect little deviation from that game plan, especially with a raw quarterback most likely taking his first meaningful snaps of his career.

Alabama’s line will have some new faces, but the method of attack will remain unchanged. It will be raw brutality, power and aggression, and even if the Trojan front seven remains rigid in the early going, there’s no reason to believe they will withstand four quarters of man-ball at the hands of the Tide O line and running backs.

Kiffin likely won’t want to test the fresh arm of a new starting quarterback against the Trojans stellar corners, so early on, expect that the passes will be short and crisp. With Calvin Ridley able to line up on the edge or in the slot, it’s reasonable to think Kiffin will slide the talented receiver around a good bit, hitting him short on the edge or getting the ball to him in the slot, where he has the athletic talent and playmaking ability to shimmy-shake like a king snake between the sparse defenders in the space just the other side of the line of scrimmage and between the hashes. After all, Alabama has the talent outside in ArDarius Stewart, Robert Foster and Gehrig Dieter to keep Jackson and Marshall committed wide, and the idea of Plattenburg and Hawkins (or even Tell) being asked to cover Ridley one-on-one sounds…well…unfair.

Because of somewhat suspect depth in the front seven, expect Alabama’s gargantuan line to wear on the Trojan front. While the first half may see some USC success while the O line gets into gear and the running game gets into rhythm, by the second half, the Trojans may struggle to keep up with the bludgeoning they’ll be asked to endure. As was the case with Derrick Henry and the Tide running game in 2015, opponents will struggle to get the best out of hits with Alabama’s big, physical backs. Runs that earlier in the game would have produced three yards will begin to yield six…seven…eight yards and more. Alabama will never give up on the running game, and the Trojans will have to find an answer for that. With limited depth and an attacking style that lends itself to early burnout, the second half will likely be a different game for USC than the first.