4. WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE USC DEFENSE
– The defense that did a good job of getting into the backfield was a wee bit stronger than it might have seemed. The D allowed just 27 points per game, but struggled in key moments and couldn’t pick up the slack for the inconsistent offense. There’s work to be done in the back seven, but …
– The defensive line has the potential to be far stronger. Christian Rector has the talent to be a pass rushing terror, and now it’ll be his job to focus almost exclusively on getting to the quarterback. He’s set on one side, and then things get interesting with top recruit Drake Jackson more than playing up to the hype this offseason to push for the job on the other side. At the very least, he’ll work in a rotation with veteran Connor Murphy
The inside is solid with 305-pound sophomore Marlon Tuipulotu and 325-pound junior Brandon Pili two big options on the nose, and 6-3, 310-pound sophomore Jay Tufele a rising force at one tackle gig.
– Leading tackler Cameron Smith is gone, but it’s still a good looking linebacking corps with enough young talent to be stronger overall – with a little time. This group needs seasoning.
It starts with leading returning tackler John Houston, who came up with 67 stops, and now he’ll be working on the inside after spending last year on the outside. Sophomore Hunter Echols got his feet wet as a freshman, and now he’ll be asked to grow into a pass rushing star at one end, and with 6-2, 250-pound sophomore Palaie Gaoteote stepping up as the main man on the other side unless star recruit Solomon Tuliaupupu is ready to go right away.
– Can the secondary replace just about everyone? It’ll be a work in progress that won’t come together until the end of fall camp. The corners are talented, but sophomore Olaijah Griffin has to get healthy after suffering a shoulder injury, but 6-2, 205-pound redshirt freshman Isaac Taylor-Stuart looked like a keeper. Somewhere in the rotation is sophomore Greg Johnson, who’s experienced enough to be a decent backup option if he doesn’t rise up and take one of the starting jobs.
The safety situation is better thanks to the return of sophomore Talanoa Hufanga coming off a 51-tackle season, and with 6-4, 200-pound sophomore Isaiah Pola-Mao the main man at the other spot until junior CJ Pollard – who made just 12 stops last year – comes back from a foot injury.