The big question of USC’s defense

New defensive players may change the narrative for USC after last season’s struggles.

The Trojans had a dazzling offense last season, but their defense held them back. With new additions across the board, the defense can be the catalyst to push them over. (Tomoki Chien / Daily Trojan file photo)

The USC football team returns with a Heisman winner as quarterback. It is headed by offensive guru Lincoln Riley, a man with a 66-13 career record as a college coach.

The offense has two wide receivers named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list, which recognizes the “college football season’s outstanding FBS receiver,” and two offensive linemen named to the Outland Trophy watch list, similarly recognizing the best interior lineman in college football.

Expectations for the Trojan offense are astronomical, which helped them slot in at No. 6 in the USA Today Preseason Coaches Poll. USC might be ranked even higher except for one glaring question mark: the USC defense.

This is the defense that finished 94th in FBS in scoring last season and lost the production of Tuli Tuipulotu, who recorded 13.5 sacks last season, and Mekhi Blackmon, who led USC with 12 pass breakups, to the NFL Draft.

But the defense is just that: a question mark. It is hard to say what this year’s version of the defense will look like. Alex Grinch, now in his second year as the defensive coordinator, more or less had to deal with the hand that was given to him by the Clay Helton coaching staff last season. But this year, USC brought in multiple transfers and freshmen who could significantly improve the largest barrier in the way of a Trojan CFP berth.

The run defense, which gave up a whopping 159.8 rush yards per game last season, is expected to receive a big beef-up with the addition of two defensive line transfers from the SEC and a third from the Big Ten. Sophomores Bear Alexander and Anthony Lucas are joined by redshirt senior Jack Sullivan as four-star transfers joining the defensive front.

Alexander is — literally — the biggest addition of the group and already has a National Championship under his belt, winning one with Georgia this past season. In the championship game, the 300-pounder had a sack with an additional tackle for loss and is one of only three defensive linemen on the USC roster listed over 300 pounds.

He transferred to USC on April 23, meaning he missed Spring Camp. This gives Lucas, who transferred on Jan. 11, and Sullivan, who transferred on Jan. 8, a slight leg-up when it comes to playing time since they participated in spring practices and got experience in Grinch’s system.

Running back Austin Jones brandishes the iconic Trojan sword. USC looks to fine-tune its defense as it heads into the new season. (Tomoki Chien / Daily Trojan file photo)

Sullivan, Lucas and Alexander can all be difference makers on the defensive line, filling the void of Tuipulotu — the only Trojan with more than six sacks last season.

The Trojans also brought in reinforcements for the linebacker corps to back up the new transfers on the defensive front. Mason Cobb, a senior transfer from Oklahoma State, has already made waves in his short time at USC. He and junior quarterback Caleb Williams were invited to attend Pac-12 Football Media Day and represent the Trojans. Cobb recorded 96 tackles for the Cowboys last season and was named to the All-Big 12 Second Team.

The Trojan defense had tackling issues last season, missing 24 tackles in the Pac-12 Championship alone, according to Pro Football Focus. Cobb, whose 96 tackles last season would have led USC by a wide margin, will certainly help with that problem as he mans the middle of the defense.

Junior inside linebacker Eric Gentry will also share the brunt of the tackling duties, recording 71 of his own last season despite missing time with an ankle injury and only playing in 11 of USC’s 14 games. He never seemed to truly come back from the injury, averaging 7.43 tackles per game in seven games before the injury and only 4.75 per game after coming back.

With a fully healthy Gentry and the newly added Cobb in the middle of the Trojan defense, the linebacker corps is projected to be a much deeper and talented unit this season. Highly-ranked freshman inside linebacker Tackett Curtis should also become a factor on the defense once he gets his feet under him, further bolstering a unit that sorely needed reinforcements.

That just leaves the secondary. Since the Trojan offense is such a prolific unit, ranking third in FBS with 41.4 PPG last season, it forces opposing offenses into primarily passing situations since they have to keep up with USC’s scoring.

As such, it inflated USC’s passing defense stats in a bad way. In 2022, the Trojans ranked 112th out of 131 programs in passing yards allowed per game. The secondary has to step up if the Trojans want a chance to win the Pac-12 and make the CFP. USC has to play quarterbacks like Oregon’s Bo Nix, Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and Notre Dame’s Sam Hartman, a tall task if the secondary is not up to par.

Sophomore cornerback Domani Jackson is the Trojans’ largest X factor in the secondary. Jackson was a 5-star recruit coming out of high school but saw limited action last season, appearing in seven games and recording two tackles and one pass breakup. While USC has not put out an official depth chart yet, he could end up being one of the two starting corners for the Trojans and one of the most important players overall.

No matter how much talent this defense has, it is up to Grinch and the rest of the defensive coaching staff to utilize their players well. While Riley and Williams will likely give the Trojans a top-10 scoring offense, something Riley has had every year he’s been a head coach, the defense needs to step up and make stops if USC wants to play for a National Championship.

With how much the Trojan offense scores, the defense does not have to be amazing, but it has to be better than the 94th-best scoring defense in the country. The defense has all the tools to do just that; it just has to put all of the pieces together and answer the questions everyone is asking.

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