Steve Sarkisian’s hiring last December meant the reinvigoration of the up-tempo, partially no-huddle offense in Troy. It also meant that for some of the largest guys on the football field at USC, life was about to get a lot more tiring. Opposing defenses will need to adjust to a faster pace from the Trojans next fall, but until then, USC’s defensive line is tasked with matching that pace after each snap and staying aggressive without becoming fatigued.
“It’s tiring, mentally more than anything,” said redshirt junior lineman Antwaun Woods, one of two returning starters on the line. “It’s hard on your body, but it’s going to become real, real good for us.”
If there was a position group that symbolized USC’s turbulent 2013 season and the offseason that followed, it would be the D-line. Preseason All-American candidate Morgan Breslin played just five games while fighting a hip injury, and on New Year’s Eve, George Uko made a somewhat surprising decision to enter the NFL Draft rather than return for his redshirt senior season.
On the coaching side, the position became a carousel. Ed Orgeron ceded the defensive line coaching spot to Pete Jenkins when Orgeron was promoted to interim head coach. Both left after the season, Orgeron in a huff after not being offered the permanent head job. In January, former Texas defensive line coach Bo Davis was brought in — or so we thought. He didn’t make it past the first day of classes in the spring semester before bolting for the same position at Alabama. In a cruel subplot, Davis left USC to become coworkers with Lane Kiffin, who now coaches the offense in Tuscaloosa.
That brought in Chris Wilson, hired from the same spot in Georgia, as the eventual position coach. The media and fans watched the hectic sequence play out from afar, but the whirlwind took its toll on USC’s linemen.
“I didn’t really want to see any new coaches, but I came to the conclusion that it’s part of football, so I had to deal with it,” junior defensive lineman Leonard Williams said. “Me and the new coach are on good terms, so I’m just taking in everything he’s telling me.”
One of those conversations has been on leadership, a quality that needs refreshing on the line after Uko and Devon Kennard’s departure.
“Coach has been expecting me to step up and be a leader, and to voice my opinion more,” Williams said.
Woods concurred with Williams, adding that the two needed to follow Uko’s example by being leaders in practices and on the field.
“[Uko] brought that leadership by his play and how he practiced,” Woods said. “[Leonard and I] just need to be more vocal and take over. We have to step up.”
Not only do they need to step up, but they also might be standing up a lot more this fall. The departed Clancy Pendergast’s defense ran a 5-2 scheme comprising five linemen, with three of those in a three-point stance on the line. With USC’s faster new offense, there’s simply no time to get into a stance. Instead, the defensive line has to read and react on a dime.
For one likely starting lineman, though, facing such an offense in practice is old hat.
“Coming from [Texas] Tech to last year to this year, it’s a transitioning thing,” said redshirt junior defensive lineman Delvon Simmons. “I’m pretty used to it, more than others are, but we still have to get used to running as many plays as we do.”
Simmons mentioned how he helps encourage his fellow linemen to keep up with the pace, and being eligible after sitting out last year due to transfer rules, he expects to be a big part of keeping ready on the field in the fall.
After practice last week, Woods and his fellow linemen looked gassed after scrimmaging to close out the practice. When you take into account the pace as well as USC’s impressive stable of running backs, four of whom could be starting Pac-12 backs today, it’s no surprise that the defensive players closest to the ball are being pushed to their limits.
“That’s part of why I went to USC,” Williams said. “I remember coming here out of high school, and they always told me that ‘going against great will make you great.’”
That’s a valuable mentality to have, because the practice pace is ample preparation for the type of offense becoming more prevalent in the Pac-12. Half of USC’s opponents for 2014 were in the Top 30 in plays per game in 2013, and that’s without USC facing the lightning-speed Oregon Ducks this fall.
“They run so many fast-tempo offenses [in the Pac-12] nowadays, so they’re definitely preparing us for game time,” Williams said. “It’s a good thing, but at the same time, you can tell a lot of people are tired out there.”
USC had 35 sacks and allowed just more than 120 rushing yards per game last year. Replacing the three starters will be a tall task, but if fatigue is USC’s biggest obstacle to D-line success, then it could be another special season up front.
Jacob Freedman is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Four-Point Shot,” runs every other Monday. To comment on this story, visit dailytrojan.com or email Jacob at firstname.lastname@example.org.