NCF Nation: DaJohn Harris

USC's holes are on defense

February, 15, 2012
2/15/12
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Working off of Mark Schlabach's most recent "way-too-early" top 25, Brian Fremeau looked at the top five teams on Schlabach's ranking and Insider decided to pick apart the holes.

Topping that list are the USC Trojans.

Fremeau on the Trojans:
Generating consistency and dominance on defense needs to be the point of emphasis this spring. The Trojans forced three-and-outs on only 32 percent of opponent drives last year, the 70th-best rate in the nation. All 10 BCS bowl team defenses last season were better at getting opponent offenses off the field more quickly. (The other four teams in this article [Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma and Georgia] were much better at forcing three-and-outs, each ranked in the top 12 in this metric last season). Those extended drives were a major liability in USC's losses to Stanford and Arizona State last year -- the Trojans gave up 92 offensive points on only 26 non-garbage opponent drives.

Offensively, there isn't much to complain about other than the current vacancies at left tackle and fullback. And the defense should continue to improve under Monte Kiffin's tutelage.

Naturally, there are holes to fill -- specifically on the defensive line, where some shuffling is bound to happen in order to replace Christian Tupou, DaJohn Harris and Nick Perry. But the fact that safety T.J. McDonald decided to return -- thus giving the back seven another full year together -- bodes well for USC's defense to make more strides next season.
No team in the Pac-12 wows you at defensive tackle. No team is a sure thing. There is a lot of "maybe" at the position. And probably some maybe not.

The uncertainty of quality -- both in terms of returning stars and depth -- made this a difficult position to rank. For example, Washington has a nice foursome at tackle, led by Alameda Ta'amu, who might be the best tackle in the conference.

That's great. Good for the Huskies. But they ranked 97th in the country in run defense last year. You sort of pause over that, you know?

So a lot of this ranking is feel thing, a projection of potential. And "great shape" here is relative to the conference. Nebraska, for example, wouldn't exchange its tackles -- Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler -- for any Pac-12 tandem.

Some of this figures to inspire a bit of debate.

Great shape

USC: This may be in some part based on fumes from the Trojans reputation at the position. It definitely includes a vote of faith that they will get a 100 percent Christian Tupou back from the knee injury that killed his 2010 season. If so, the threesome of Tupou, George Uko and DaJohn Harris is strong. And if you toss in Armond Armstead -- who missed spring with an undisclosed medical condition that threatens his career -- you'd have a clear No. 1.

Washington: Ta'amu seemed to find himself during the second half of last year, and the 330-pounder could end up getting some All-American consideration if he consistently plays like he did against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl. Sione Potoa'e and Semisi Tokolahi are both experienced, and Lawrence Lagafuaina a space-grabbing, 344-pound redshirt freshman.

Colorado: The Buffaloes are sneaky good here, even though they only ranked 48th in the nation in run defense in 2010. Both starters, Will Pericak and Curtis Cunningham, are back, but Conrad Obi was a revelation this spring. He looked like a future NFL draft choice, not a player who'd mostly been a bust. Nate Bonsu, who missed spring with a knee injury, also should help.

Good shape

Utah: The Utes, who ranked 11th in the nation in run defense in 2010, lost Sealver Siliga, but they believe they have a budding star in, er, Star Lotulelei, while James Aiono, LT Tuipulotu and Joape Peta are solid. Also, Dave Kruger, who played end this spring, is 280 pounds and can play inside.

Arizona: The loss of backup Willie Mobley to a knee injury hurts depth, but Justin Washington figures to take a step forward after an impressive true freshman season, Sione Tuihalamaka started four games in 2010. Depth is a question. The Wildcats ranked 33rd in the nation in run defense last fall.

Oregon: On the one hand, Oregon lost both starting defensive tackles in Brandon Bair and Zac Clark from a unit that ranked 27th in the nation in run defense. On the other, they played so many guys last fall, the new starters are experienced players. Further, Ricky Heimuli, Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi, Isaac Remington and Jared Ebert played well enough this spring to suggest the position will be a strength in the fall.

Arizona State: If Lawrence Guy didn't make his ill-fated decision to enter the NFL draft, the Sun Devils, who were 16th in the nation against the run last fall, would be in great shape here. As it was, Will Sutton had a great spring and looks like a potential All-Conference guy. Grinder Bo Moos is listed as the starter at the other tackle, though he could be eclipsed by Corey Adams. Toa Tuitea saw limited action last year.

UCLA: The Bruins defensive line was terrible last year, ranking 108th in the nation against the run, but the talent is there for a significant turnaround. Cassius Marsh, Nate Chandler, Justin Edison, Donovan Carter and Seali'i Epenesa should do a much better job plugging the middle.

California: Cal is actually fine here, despite the loss of NG Derrick Hill. For one, when you run a 3-4 defense, it's hard to rate your DTs, even if your DEs often operate like them. The Bears have two solid options at NG in Aaron Tipoti and Kendrick Payne, and it's also possible that touted 350-pound incoming freshman Viliami Moala will eclipse both of them.

We'll see

Oregon State: Dominic Glover moves inside from end and Kevin Frahm has experience, but this unit didn't play well last year -- 89th in run defense -- even with one of the best DTs in the nation in Stephen Paea. 340-pound Castro Masaniai could help but he missed spring after shoulder surgery and has off-field issues. There's also Mana Tuivailala and Ben Motter.

Stanford: Like Cal, Stanford runs a 3-4, so it naturally it is going to suffer a bit in DT rankings. More important: The loss of Sione Fua is significant. Terrence Stephens and Henry Anderson had solid springs but neither has much experience.

Washington State: Brandon Rankin, a returning starter, was listed No. 2 on the depth chart behind Anthony Laurenzi after spring practices, with redshirt freshman Toni Pole No. 1 at the other tackle. Justin Clayton, Steven Hoffart and Xavier Cooper provide depth. It's not unreasonable for Cougars fans to expect improvement, perhaps significant improvement. But a team that ranked 115th in the nation in run defense the previous season is automatically a "We'll see" here.
Coach Lane Kiffin repeatedly praised USC's defensive line this spring, but it got thinner on Wednesday with the announcement that senior starting nose tackle Christian Tupou will miss the 2010 season with knee injury.

Tupou, who started 21 games over the past two seasons, tore a ligament in his left knee during the spring game on Saturday.

"It's unfortunate that it happened, but I'm okay," Tupou said in a statement. "I'll deal with it. It's part of the game. I'm down, but I'm not out because I can come back in 2011. Through training and rehab, I see a brighter light at the end of the road."

Tupou has yet to use his redshirt season, so if he could return in 2011 as a redshirt senior.

He had 25 tackles and four tackles for a loss in 2009 and earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors. A political science major, he will graduate next week and will begin graduate study in the fall.

With Tupou out, DaJohn Harris and Hebron Fangupo will compete for the starting job, defensive line coach Ed Orgeron said in a text message to ESPN.com's Bruce Feldman. Derek Simmons was listed behind Tupou on the post-spring depth chart.

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