With the announced return of Clancy Pendergast to the Trojans as defensive coordinator, there’s a definite sense of optimism at USC, and for good reason.
In his one-year stint in command of the Trojans defense in 2013, the veteran assistant helped turn an underachieving unit that gave up 394 yards per game one year prior, into an attacking, physical group that finished No. 1 in the Pac-12 in total defense (335.2 yards per game) and red zone defense (62.8 percent).
But how does the current defensive personnel at USC, which ran out of what previous defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox called a 3-4 multiple-front scheme, fit into Pendergast’s signature 5-2 alignment? With new roles and responsibilities, there are sure to be certain players who are affected more by the transition than others.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the top five returning players who could be impacted by the expected switch to Pendergast’s 5-2 defensive system:
Porter Gustin (Soph., DE/OLB, 6-5, 250)
No position group personified the swarming philosophy of Pendergast’s defense at USC in 2013 more than those coming off the edge -- the outside linebackers. Devon Kennard, J.R. Tavai, and prior to his hip injury, Morgan Breslin, all flourished in the system, with Kennard enjoying a banner year in which he accumulated a team-high nine sacks. Lining up at rush end this past season in Wilcox’s defense, Gustin showed off some unique abilities as a pass rusher, amassing 5.5 sacks in somewhat limited minutes. Now freed up even more to attack the offensive backfield and to showcase his aggressive brand of play, it’s not hard to imagine the rising sophomore having a real breakout year at either the ‘sam’ -- where Kennard played -- or ‘predator’ outside linebacker position.
Uchenna Nwosu (Jr., LB, 6-3, 210)
Nwosu spent a majority of this past season as a key reserve at ‘sam’ linebacker, making a solid contribution with 31 tackles. But with the outside linebackers in Pendergast’s scheme traditionally possessing more bulk than the junior currently carries, it stands to reason that he will either need to add more weight in a hurry or move to another spot. His most likely destination figures to be ‘will’ linebacker on the inside, where he actually saw some time this past season, but he has the athleticism and instincts to potentially even make a move to a safety/linebacker-hybrid type position, similar to the one that Dion Bailey occupied at times in the 5-2 in 2013.
Rasheem Green (So., DL, 6-5, 285)
Lining up at defensive end this past season, Green is another young player who showed a ton of promise, particularly as the season wore on. And with the Trojans losing five senior interior defensive linemen from last year’s squad, including all three starters, the Gardena (California) Serra product will undoubtedly be looked upon to help fill that crucial void. Fortunately, Green’s explosiveness and size figure to make him another perfect fit in Pendergast’s scheme. His skill set shares some similarities to that of former Trojans All-American Leonard Williams, who, despite playing through a shoulder injury, found tremendous success in the 5-2 in 2013, finishing second on the team in tackles (74) and tied-for-first with Kennard with 13.5 tackles-for-loss.
Kenny Bigelow (Jr., DL, 6-3, 290)
With the change in philosophy, Bigelow, who hasn’t quite lived up to expectations yet, has an opportunity to make a fresh start, and there’s reason to believe he could find his niche in the system. Possessing the ideal size for interior defensive linemen in Pendergast’s alignment, Bigelow also brings the added bonus of being able to line up at either defensive end or nose tackle. Having lined up at that nose spot in the 5-2 as a freshman in practice, he’s very familiar with what that role entails, which includes being more of a space-eater so that the inside linebackers can make plenty of stops up near the line.
Jabari Ruffin (Sr., LB, 6-3, 245)
Another player looking to break through in 2016, Ruffin enjoyed his most productive year as a Trojan lining up at outside linebacker in Pendergast’s defense, even recording the lone start of his career in the season opener against Hawaii. Hampered by injuries and buried on the depth chart following Pendergast’s departure, the move back to the 5-2 figures to allow him to play more to his strengths as an attacking, physical defender. Having added 20 pounds to his frame since that redshirt freshman season of 2013, he’s also now an even better match, in terms of his build, for either of the two outside linebacker spots.