The USC defense enters the 2014 season in the middle of a massive transition. Nowhere is this change more evident than in the linebacking corps, as the group adjusts to new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 defensive front. This change in basic formation marks a shift from previous coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 hybrid scheme that flummoxed opposing offenses and had the Trojans as the best statistical defense in the Pac-12.
Early on, the Trojans will have to compensate for the loss of hybrid end/outside linebacker Devon Kennard who was a stalwart for the Trojans last year. Kennard was selected in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the New York Giants.
Senior J.R. Tavai and redshirt sophomore Scott Felix (formerly Scott Starr) will look to fill the void left by former co-captain Kennard.
Tavai was a revelation midway through the season as he finished the year starting seven consecutive games. Overall, Tavai recorded 56 tackles on the year and was so impressive in conference play that he earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention. While he has struggled with injuries during his time at USC, Tavai has demonstrated the ability in games and recent practices to make a major impact on the gridiron this season.
Felix fought his way into a starting spot after only appearing in six games last season and recording nine tackles. Felix has been plagued by injuries during his time at USC, missing most of the 2012 season with a neck injury, from which he didn’t fully recover until the second game of 2013.
After Tavai and Felix, however, the Trojans lack seasoned veterans to play on the outside at linebacker. Jabari Ruffin, a local product from Downey, was slated to compete for time at the outside spot, but the redshirt sophomore was lost for the season after suffering a knee injury in fall camp.
This means that the group of true freshman linebackers from coach Steve Sarkisian’s inaugural recruiting class will be thrust into action very quickly. In Sarkisian’s inaugural depth chart, Don Hill, Malik Dorton and Uchenna Nwosu might all see time this year based on how the season progresses. Nwosu is a hybrid back who has the ability to play inside and outside. He was a standout at Los Angeles powerhouse Narbonne High and the Trojans would benefit greatly if he doesn’t skip a beat in his transition to the collegiate level.
Dorton played at St. John Bosco (Bellflower, Califonia) where he was a highly regarded defensive end. Hill enrolled in the spring, but was held out of practice while recovering from an Achilles injury.
The inside linebackers appear to be a bit more settled as the Trojans have depth and experience at the position.
Linebacker Hayes Pullard is a fifth-year senior who has been one of the most dependable Trojans over the last few years. He has led the team in tackles for two of the last three seasons, while starting almost every game. The Inglewood, California native will serve as a co-captain for the second straight season.
Junior defensive end Leonard Williams sang the praises of Pullard at Pac-12 Football Media Day this summer.
“Having Hayes come back was a big part of our defense being strong this year,” Williams said. “He’s a great leader … He’s always been a great leader, since I was a freshman.”
Pullard will anchor the defense with the support of senior inside linebacker Lamar Dawson, who is coming off a knee injury, as well as redshirt junior utility linebacker Anthony Sarao, a dependable contributor to both defense and special teams during his career as a Trojan.
Sarao earned the starting nod at the weak inside linebacker position heading into 2014 after a strong 2013 season. Last year he recorded 44 total tackles after Sarao worked his way into a starting role in the last seven games of the season.
Though the Trojans might be young and relatively thin at linebacker, new coach Peter Sirmon certainly has an abundance of talent to work with. Sirmon doubles as the recruiting coordinator brings experience as both a player and a coach. He has previously coached at Tennessee and Washington and also served as a graduate assistant at Oregon.
Sirmon faced off against the Trojans when lettered at Oregon for four years under coach Mike Bellotti in the late 1990s. His direct experience as both a player and coach in the Pac-12 could potentially serve him well as he gears his linebackers up to combat the wide array of offenses the Trojans will face in the upcoming season.