Getting defensive on the line

It’s easy to see why USC comes into this college football season as the No. 1 team in the nation but there are several stumbling blocks on the road to a national championship and this week we take a look at five key concerns for the Trojans.

Even before senior defensive lineman Devon Kennard suffered a tear of his pectoral muscle that could sideline him for an extended period of time, the defensive line was a major concern for USC heading into this season.

The defensive line suffered the most losses of any position unit from last season, losing three starters in Nick Perry, Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris. If Kennard is forced to sit out this season, USC will basically have to go into this season with a completely new defensive line.

“Defensive line and defensive tackle is a concern,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “There are not many guys that have played. We have to get our defensive linemen who have not played to have a great camp. We have to develop depth if we’re going to be successful this year because you better rotate guys in there as you go along.”

Even before their losses on the defensive line, USC’s defense wasn’t quite as dominating as they were in years past last season. According to this ESPN Insider piece by Brian Fremeau, USC forced three-and-outs on only 32 percent of opponent drives last year, which was the 70th-best rate in the nation; all 10 BCS bowl team defenses last season were better at getting opponent offenses off the field quickly.

If Kennard misses significant time, a trio of unproven players would battle for his starting job. Redshirt freshman Greg Townsend Jr., redshirt junior Kevin Greene and true freshman Leonard Williams, who have zero combined starts between them, would all likely be in the mix.

The defensive line, especially the interior, was already going to be young and inexperienced at full strength. Kennard and senior defensive end Wes Horton have combined for 40 starts in their career. The next most experienced lineman is redshirt sophomore defensive lineman George Uko, who has just two career starts. Uko and sophomore J.R. Tavai, who has never started, are slated to replace Tupou and Harris on interior line.

Kiffin admits he and his coaching staff haven’t developed the kind of depth he would like on the defensive line, mainly due to the scholarship restrictions that forced him to redshirt players and also due to a change in college football offenses.

“I don’t think we’ve done a great job developing depth,” Kiffin said. “We’ve got to do that. We’ve been doing a better job from year one to year two. But defenses in college have changed. In our great days before we didn’t rotate very much because the offenses weren’t up tempo and we were so good we were three-and-out a lot. So a lot has changed.”