Though down one top ten NFL draft pick from 2014, the rejuvenated USC football team adds a new wave of talent to pack a punch on the defensive line this season. With the departure of newly minted New York Jet Leonard Williams, several players will vie to take up the mantle at defensive end and join redshirt seniors Antwaun Woods and Delvon Simmons on the frontline in 2015 — among them, five-star recruit Rasheem Green and redshirt senior Claude Pelon.
Woods and Simmons are set to return as the primary rushers up the middle in defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 scheme. In 2014, Woods tallied 37 total tackles during the regular season at nose tackle, while Simmons brought the ball carrier down a total of 44 times last year. Despite the loss of their All-Pac-12 teammate, head coach Steve Sarkisian firmly believes that Woods and Simmons can lead the charge of the Trojan defense.
“We lost a generational player in Leonard, but we are thankful that this year’s defensive line has a nice mix of veterans and talented young players,” Sarkisian said.
After playing backup to Woods and Simmons for all of the 2014 season, during which he recorded 19 tackles, Pelon will attempt to shift from defensive tackle to defensive end in order to fill the void left by Williams. Though he has yet to see any in-game snaps at defensive end in his career, Pelon believes the transition will be seamless.
Like Pelon, Green will also rotate between defensive tackle and defensive end this upcoming season. Green enters the USC football program a highly touted newcomer from Gardena, California powerhouse Junipero Serra High School. After collecting 46 tackles during his senior year, half of which were for losses, Rivals.com ranked Green fourth in the country among strongside defensive linemen for the class of 2015. Now, Green will aim to seize the opportunity and garner playing time from Sarkisian right out of the gate.
“There is lots of senior leadership, while at the same time the new players will be hungry to push for playing time,” Sarkisian said.
As a true freshmen joining the Trojans, the difference in the football team’s depth from previous years will be particularly noticeable on the defensive line. Whereas Williams played what Sarkisian called an “astronomical” number of snaps while USC faced NCAA scholarship sanctions, the second-year head coach will be able to look beyond Woods, Simmons and Pelon to the likes of Green and freshmen Noah Jefferson and Christian Rector. Sarkisian believes the veterans and newcomers alike will be able to hold their own.
“This [recruiting] class, I think, in the end, is going to win a lot of football games for us,” Sarkisian said. “How much they contribute as true freshmen as compared to when they contribute as maybe a junior or senior, I think that remains to be seen quite honestly.”
With a beefed up front line, Sarkisian, Wilcox and the Trojans will hope to improve from 46th overall in points allowed en route to national contention. The reloaded defensive line will look to bring the heat to Arkansas State on Sept. 5.