Defensive front has holes to fill

LOS ANGELES -- A check of the recent history of national title teams shows teams that are strong in the middle of the defensive line.

USC fans will remember the championship teams under Pete Carroll also featured stalwart names such as Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson, two players who are still performing well in the NFL.

The 2012 Trojans already have been tabbed as national title contenders. The entire back seven of the defense returns, but three starters up front are gone. Filling those openings will be an area of emphasis for the defensive coaches as spring drills get started.

The good news is the starting spots on the outside will be filled by a pair of veteran seniors in Wes Horton and Devon Kennard. Horton (6-foot-5, 265 pounds) and Kennard (6-3, 250) split time at the left end spot last season -- with Nick Perry on the right side -- but with Perry gone to the NFL, Horton will move over to take his place.

"I expect Wes and Devon to lead the way for us," USC defensive line coach Ed Orgeron said. "We need them to be relentless with their attitude towards work, to show the younger guys tenacity and effort. We've already seen it from them in the offseason workouts, and now we need to see it continue in spring."

The onus will also be on Horton and Kennard to make up for loss of production from Perry (9.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss in 2011), and the returning duo is certainly capable of putting up big numbers of their own. In 2011, Horton had 22 tackles, four sacks and four tackles for loss while earning second-team All-Pac-12 honors. Kennard added 29 tackles, two sacks and four tackles for loss.

"I feel like we're in a good position on the defensive line," Kennard said. "We have a good core group of guys and some young guys who can really play. This spring is going to be huge, especially for some of the younger guys and me and Wes taking our games to the next level."

As experienced as things are with the starting group on the outside, they are just as inexperienced in the middle.

Sophomore tackle George Uko (6-3, 285) brings the most playing time to the group. He will head into spring as the starter to replace DaJohn Harris at the three-technique spot. Uko started two games last season when Harris was out with injury, and he totaled 18 tackles for the season. Uko has the size and potential to be a major factor, but he will need to step up his game.

"It's not overwhelming, but it came fast, going from being the youngest guy to now where I'm the oldest guy on the interior," Uko said. "The younger guys are looking up to me on what to do, so you just have to keep it going with the same process, coaching up the young guys and getting better."

J.R. Tavai (6-2, 270) is the projected starter at nose guard. He did not start any games in 2011, as he played behind Christian Tupou, but Tavai was the only true freshman defensive lineman who did not redshirt last season.

Tavai was an early surprise in fall camp as he took reps during the first week with the second unit at defensive end. He showed a high motor and a physical presence despite being undersized. His progress was slowed by a hamstring injury in camp, and by the time he returned for the Syracuse game, he was put at nose guard. He ended the season with four tackles.

"There is added pressure this spring with the open starting spot, but it's also an opportunity," Tavai said. "It's another challenge in the book, and I'm just going to take it and run with it. I'm trying to continue the tradition of great defensive linemen at USC."

According to Orgeron, there is also the possibility that the Trojans will experiment this spring with flipping positions for Uko and Tavai in an effort to find the best combination of players along the line.

In terms of the reserves on the D-line, there is even less experience. Junior defensive end Kevin Greene (6-4, 260) is the only reserve player who has made a tackle in a USC uniform, and he has a total of one in his career. Greene has impressed in winter workouts and will line up behind Horton in spring.

The other candidates vying for playing time all will be looking for their first game action as Trojans and -- while they might be young -- there is an awful lot of talent waiting to come out.

Greg Townsend (6-3, 265) will compete with Greene for the top reserve spot behind Horton, and there are big expectations for Townsend with his physical talents and football genes. His father, Greg Sr., played defensive end in the NFL for 13 years, and the younger Townsend is prepared to start proving himself as a dependable option for the Trojans.

"I'm just ready to ball out and give it my all," Townsend said. "I'm not try to take anybody's spot or anything -- I respect my seniors -- but I want to have that mentality, because it's making everybody battle. If we're all battling, we're all going to get better."

There is also a chance Townsend could see time in the rotation on the left side behind Kennard.

Another end who will see spring ball time on both sides is incoming junior college transfer Morgan Breslin (6-3, 255), who brings impressive credentials with 28 sacks in his two seasons at Concord (Calif.) Diablo Valley College. Breslin played primarily on the right side of the line at DVC but can play both spots.

Freshman Charles Burks (6-1, 230) will be in the mix behind Kennard. Burks spent time at fullback to open 2011 fall camp but quickly was moved back to his high school position of defensive end. He promptly notched two sacks in one practice but suffered a knee injury shortly after and was out for the year. Burks recently was cleared for full participation in spring ball.

Freshman end DeVante Wilson (6-5, 235) enrolled for the spring semester and will be in the rotation at some point. He was originally a member of the class of 2011, but a knee injury last summer delayed his arrival at USC. Wilson might see limited action in spring as he continues to rehabilitate the knee, but it's likely that he won't see full-time action until the fall.

"I'm glad to be back out here getting closer to being 100 percent," Wilson said. "I felt like I was out of the loop during the fall, but now I'm back. I feel more a part of the group, and it feels good."

The backups in the interior all will be second-year players who redshirted in 2011. Christian Heyward (6-2, 275) is expected to be a top reserve at the three-technique spot, but he has an injured shoulder, and it remains to be seen how much he will be able to practice in spring.

Antwaun Woods, listed last season at 6-1 and 325 pounds, struggled last fall with conditioning issues, but he says he is "somewhere between 305 and 310 pounds," with a goal of getting to the sub-300 pound mark before the season begins.

"The loss of two starters in the middle of the line leaves room for someone to step up," Woods said. "It makes me work harder and harder to fill those guys' shoes, but the coaches aren't rushing me. They tell me to take care of my body and to get that right, so that's what I'm trying to do."

Woods will compete for reserve time at nose tackle with Cody Temple, who recently was moved from the offensive line. Temple (6-2, 280) is healthy now after battling back injuries throughout the 2011 season.

Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at garry@wearesc.com.