The USC offensive and defensive lines enter the 2014 campaign with aspirations to be some of the best units in the nation.
The Trojans’ defensive line, which was among the nation’s best in 2013, will once again be anchored by junior defensive end and highly touted NFL Draft prospect Leonard Williams, who has his attention centered only on his team and the season ahead for the time being.
“I’m just focused on having a great season this year,” Williams said. “I’m so ready … we’ve got new coaches, a new team, and we’re just looking past all the old, bad stuff in the past.”
New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is inheriting a unit that thrived in former defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 scheme and was ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12 in total defense last season.
The defensive line returns starters in junior defensive tackle Antwaun Woods and Williams, but will most likely look to junior college transfer Claude Pelon or Texas Tech transfer Delvon Simmons to fill former defensive lineman George Uko’s role.
Williams will undoubtedly be the centerpiece of USC’s front seven, and therefore will be the point of interest for opposing offensive lines.
Opposing teams will likely double-team Williams, allowing for the players around him to break out.
Williams has been impressed by Pelon and Simmons, and he raved about Woods.
“I kind of expected that I’d be getting double-teamed a lot this year, but we have a lot of guys coming in like Claude [Pelon] and Delvon [Simmons], and Antwaun Woods is going to step up and be big this year,” Williams said.
Woods injured his elbow in fall camp but should be ready to go by the start of the season on Aug. 30 against Fresno State.
On the other hand, the offensive line, under the direction of first-year coach Tim Drevno, comes into this season with perhaps the most question marks out of any position group after allowing 34 sacks last season, ranking 104th in the nation.
As of now, it looks like redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler will have a young, inexperienced line with three potential first-time starters.
To add more uncertainty, the team is learning a new up-tempo offense under head coach Steve Sarkisian and has a new starting center in junior Max Tuerk, who has slid over from left guard to fill the void that former starting center Marcus Martin left after departing for the NFL.
Besides Tuerk, the only other experience on the line, at least at the beginning of the year, will come from redshirt sophomore Chad Wheeler at left tackle, who started every game for the Trojans in 2013.
It looks like true freshman Toa Lobendahn might start at left guard as senior offensive lineman Aundrey Walker struggles to overcome a lingering ankle injury, while redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers is in line to start at right guard.
Sarkisian emphasized the importance of the unit staying healthy.
“We need eight really good guys that can rotate through for our season to be really successful,” Sarkisian said. “We would love the luxury of 10, but eight is good enough so that’s what we’re trying to get.”