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USC Preview: Defense

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Taking a look at Justin Wilcox's 3-4 defense featuring Su'a Cravens and Adoree' Jackson

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Time to break down defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox's offense. A little weird, huh?

Our former DC rocks a 3-4 defense in which the RUSH end often acts like a pass-rushing defensive end, only without the hand on the ground, and the SOLB acts an awful lot like a safety. The whole defense is stacked with highly rated recruits with outrageous athleticism, kind of like the rest of the USC roster.

Even without factoring in the revenge narrative (I prefer to think about it as an awkward meeting between ex's), this is a unique challenge for Jake Browning and the Husky offense. They will be on the road facing what I consider to be the most athletic defense in the conference.

Defensive Line

DT Delvon Simmons (Sr., 6-5, 295), NT Antwaun Woods (Sr., 6-1, 320), DE Greg Townsend Jr. (Sr., 6-3, 275).

There's really no replacing Leonard Williams, sort of like you don't just replace Danny Shelton with a single player. That kind of playmaker on a 3-4 defensive line is rare, but that is okay: this a solid bunch with the size and strength necessary to stand stout and allow linebackers to fly in behind them.

As you might expect given their role and the heavy DL rotation, none of these players are blowing up statistically in 2015. Simmons leads the bunch with 14 tackles. Rotational contributor Kenny Bigelow Jr (So., 6-3, 290) has chipped in 2.0 sacks, the only defensive lineman to contribute more than a half sack or more than one TFL.

If we are to think of run defense as this group's main responsibility, it's fair to say they have done a mostly acceptable but unspectacular job. The overall stats have them 6th in the conference at 164 rushing yards allowed per game and 5th in rushing yards allowed per attempt at 3.95. For the sake of comparison, the Huskies are 1st in both categories by a wide margin, including allowing only 2.61 yards per carry.

Linebackers

RUSH Scott Felix (Jr., 6-2, 240), MILB Cameron Smith (Fr., 6-2, 245) OR Lamar Dawson (Sr., 6-1, 230), WILB Anthony Sarao (Sr., 6-0, 235), SOLB Su'a Cravens (Jr., 6-1, 225).

Somehow true freshman Cameron Smith, listed as a costarter with senior Lamar Dawson, has managed to lead the team with 30 total tackles. He has freaky size for a kid coming straight out of high school, and it's scary to think where he might be in a few years. Smith's partner at middle linebacker Anthony Sarao has chipped in 14 tackles, 2.0 TFL, and a sack.

I expected far more from Scott Felix at rush end than he has shown so far, though the year is young. Intended to serve as USC's primary pass-rusher, Felix has only managed 2.0 TFL and a single sack, recorded against ASU's Mike Bercovici in the recent win.  Felix seems to have the talent, but the production has yet to follow.

The obvious star of this group is Su'a Cravens. In only 4 games, he has made 27 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, and one interception. You can watch him play for about five minutes and realize that he is a dynamic talent being utilized perfectly in a hybrid safety/outside linebacker role comparable to that of Shaq Thompson.

Defensive Backs

CB Kevon Seymour (Sr., 6-0, 185) OR Imam Marshall (Fr., 6-2, 200), FS Chris Hawkins (So., 5-11, 190), SS John Plattenburg (So., 5-11, 185), CB Adoree' Jackson (So., 5-11, 185).

With Seymour/Marshall we have another battle between a young talent and an experienced contributor. Eventually Marshall looks to have the brighter future, but expect both to see a lot of time against the Huskies.

On the other side, Jackson is tied with Cravens in my mind as the scariest member of this defense. He plays corner, wide receiver, and kick returner, and he's capable of scoring touchdowns from all three positions.

Like any player that has collected hype via his versatility, Jackson is a better football player than he is a cornerback. Unfortunately, he's still a very good corner who is going to keep at least one of Washington's receivers fairly well blanketed.  Even if his man is vaguely open, Browning may hesitate to force the ball towards a guy with Jackson's catching ability.

Hawkins and Plattenburg form a nice pair of talented sophomore safeties who we may talk about as the stars of this group in a year or two. Both have managed to pick one pass while remaining active against the run.

Overall the Trojans have been middling against the pass. They rank 9th in the conference in total passing yards allowed per game with 246 yards (UW 6th at 216),  6th in yards per attempt at 6.6 (Washington 4th at 6.2), and 6th in QB rating with 115 (UW 2nd at 106).

Overview

Right now this defense is more talented than good. This does not mean they are bad, but it does lend itself to inconsistency. The same team that gave up 41 at home to a Stanford offense we had all presumed mostly dead has also dominated ASU in the desert.

It's in important tune-up for the Trojans before a brutal stretch at #15 Notre Dame, vs. #5 Utah, and at #23 California. I could spin this as a reason USC will come out fired up or a reason they will overlook the game. Nobody knows.

I'm worried that the Huskies do not match up all that well. Stanford allowed for Hogan's efficiency by pounding the ball on the ground, something the Huskies have struggled to do all year.  I worry that as long as the run game is ineffective, so much pressure will be placed on Jake Browning to make plays that he will end up allowing Adoree' or Su'a to make them instead.

Obviously both of those points have a lot to do with the young Husky offensive line. Pass protection has not been nearly as poor as the run blocking, but its been inconsistent enough (see: end of Cal game) that we should expect aggressive blitzing. That's scary.

Still, there's always the caveat that it is far too early to say we know either of these teams. Coach Sark played two cupcakes, then lost brutally to Stanford and beat the snot out of ASU. So...we have no idea how we will view USC at the end of the season, just like we have no idea how much Washington will improve each week (note that both teams are coming off a bye)

The uncertainty can drive you mad, or it can give you some hope that Sark struggles in the ways we remember while this young Husky offense shows us something they never have before.