USC position-by-position preview: defense

Set to play in a new scheme put in place by first-year USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, here's a position-by-position glance at how the Trojans look on defense as they inch closer and closer toward the team's season opener.

Defensive line

Headlined by 2013 ESPN.com All-American defensive end Leonard Williams, the Trojans defensive line is the backbone of an extremely formidable USC front seven. The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Williams missed some time early in camp with a shoulder strain, but he's returned to action and looks poised to have another monster season. At nose tackle, Antwaun Woods -- who started six games in 2013 -- also missed some time in camp due to a hyperextended elbow, but he too has returned and is showing no ill-effects from his injury. At the starting interior defensive tackle position a pair of transfers in Delvon Simmons and Claude Pelon share the top spot on the depth chart. Both are big, strong athletes, and Simmons brings the added bonus of possessing the ability to slide over to nose tackle. Greg Townsend Jr. had a promising camp and seems to be over his injury woes, so he'll likely factor into the rotation at defensive end. Cody Temple was sidelined for a majority of camp after suffering a concussion, but he's getting back in the swing of things now and is listed as the No. 2 nose tackle. Freshmen Malik Dorton and Don Hill, as well as fifth-year senior walk-on Teddy Baker, will also provide depth on the interior.

Over at rush end, J.R. Tavai and Scott Felix have battled it out since the spring, and both players have shined throughout the competition. In fact, as camp progressed Wilcox increasingly lined Felix up at SAM linebacker -- where he's now listed as the starter -- in an effort to get both defensive playmakers on the field at the same time. Charles Burks is another option at rush end.


Fifth-year senior MIKE linebacker Hayes Pullard led the Trojans in tackles in two of the past three seasons, and having been chosen as a captain in back-to-back years now, he also serves an important role as a team leader. Lining up next to Pullard at WILL linebacker will be Anthony Sarao, who has continued to assert himself as a valuable piece of the defense after starting the final seven games of the 2013 campaign. Sophomore Michael Hutchings is the primary backup at MIKE, and freshman Olajuwon Tucker made a major move during fall camp, to where he's now established himself as the No. 2 WILL linebacker. Still needing to add a little bulk to his 6-3, 230-pound frame, he's shown a knack for being around the ball. Senior Lamar Dawson, who has started 20 games in his career, figured to be a factor at WILL linebacker, but he still hasn't quite recovered from the knee injury that he suffered last season, and Sarkisian recently said that he expects him to be out another month or longer.

With Jabari Ruffin going down with a season ending ACL tear early in camp, it was assumed that Quinton Powell would immediately moved into the No. 1 spot at SAM linebacker, but instead Felix has assumed that role. Meanwhile, Powell, who enjoyed a strong spring, is left battling freshman Uchenna Nwosu for the primary backup job. Right now Nwosu is actually listed ahead of Powell on the depth chart.

Defensive backs

Similar to the situation at wide receiver on offense, the Trojans found themselves with a seeming overabundance of talent in the secondary throughout fall camp -- particularly at cornerback -- after suffering from a lack of depth there last fall. But with the recent news that fifth-year senior cornerback Josh Shaw will be sidelined indefinitely after suffering two high ankle sprains while rescuing his nephew in a pool this past Saturday, this is a unit that all of a sudden will have to move forward, for at least awhile, without its most seasoned, and reliable performer at cornerback.

In the absence of Shaw, Chris Hawkins is the likely favorite to take his place atop the depth chart, with Kevon Seymour, who started 11 games for the Trojans in 2013, on the other side. It's a challenge that Hawkins appears more than up for. The redshirt freshman actually lined up with the No. 1 unit for a majority of the spring, as Seymour was sidelined early on due to illness.

Sarkisian and his staff also made a concerted effort to shore up the cornerback spot in the last recruiting cycle, and that will obviously aid the situation here. One of those freshmen, Adoree' Jackson, looks ready to make an immediate impact, and he'll almost certainly push for major minutes as well. One of the Trojans' most highly-touted signees, he's lived up to every bit of the hype so far, starring at both cornerback and wide receiver in practice. An explosive athlete, he figures to see more time on the defensive side of the ball early, especially now. Jonathan Lockett and Lamont Simmons are two more freshmen who have shown well, and it's not out of the question to assume that one or both will now be relied upon to contribute. Ryan Dillard and Devian Shelton are two veteran reserve players, although both are currently sidelined with injuries.

At safety Leon McQuay III and Gerald Bowman performed at a high level during fall camp, and both are listed as sharing the top spot at free safety, although Bowman spent quite a bit of time running with the No. 1 unit at strong safety. Su'a Cravens, a 2013 freshman All-American, battled illness and a groin injury during a portion of fall camp, but he looks to be healthy enough to have gained his starting job back at strong safety. He'll also see plenty of time at the Dollar spot -- a linebacker/safety hybrid position that plays to his strengths as a bigger, more physical defensive back with outstanding football instincts.

Freshman John Plattenburg will help add depth, and walk-on Matt Lopes is another name to watch out for. D.J. Morgan, a converted tailback who has been hampered by knee and leg injuries throughout his career, was held out for a majority of fall camp.