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A Pair Of Takes: A Way Too Early 2-Deep Roster Look (Defense)

May 12, 2021

Will USC's 2021 Offense led by Kedon Slovis and Drake London be the face of the program, or will the Trojan's defense lead the program back to the promised land? 

Last week Josh and I gave you our way too early two-deep on the offensive side of the ball, and today we give you the defensive side of the ball led by Drake Jackson and Isaiah Pola-Mao.   

When defensive coordinator Todd Orlando arrived early in 2020, Trojan fans had almost forgotten what an aggressive AND productive defense looked like; since his arrival, the defense's production, as well as the culture, has changed.  In a shortened season, the Trojan’s defense recovered 7 fumbles and intercepted 9 passes in only six games; four of those INT's came from Talanoa Hufanga.  So statistically, if we were to compare USC with the teams that played double-digit game seasons last year, USC's numbers start to project with the best.  And fortunately for Coach T O, most of last year's essential parts return even if there are some questions that still need to be answered.

The first question; who has earned the right to move into the vacancy that Talanoa Hufanga left at the SS position?

Safeties & Nickel Position
This group will shake itself out once the nickel position gets settled.  

2020 starter Greg Johnson missed spring rehabbing an off-season surgery, and the backup Max Williams suffered a season-ending injury during the spring.  Because of the injuries, Isaiah Pola-Mao and his versatility were moved to nickel; the trickle-up effect to the line of scrimmage meant Chase Williams at SS and Xavion Alford at FS.  

But, if Johnson is ready to earn back his spot this fall, the 2-deep could look like this.

Group-1: (SS) Chase Williams, (FS) IPM, (NB) Greg Johnson
Group-2: (SS) Micah Crooms, (FS) Xavion Alford, (NB) Briton Allen

Olaijah Griffin is trying to make an NFL roster. However, the CB room is still deep, and the group opened a lot of eyes during spring camp, including the emergence of Josh Jackson who made the off-season transition from offense to defense.  

When the summer PRP's and fall camp start, there won't be a moment where the CB's can take a repetition off; the competition on both sides of the ball will test each of these guys looking to find a place in the rotation.  Iron sharpens iron!

Group-1: Chris Steele and Issac Taylor-Stuart
Group-2: Joshua Jackson and Jayden Williams

Coach Orlando coaches this group which typically employs 3 LB's when he rolls out his first unit.  Still, it's one of those hybrid styles of backer sets which allows a Drake Jackson to line up near the line of scrimmage, and it also makes this position group one of the more intriguing ones as approach the 2021 season.  

Both Kana'i Mauga and Ralen Goforth solidified their spots in the rotation this spring, while Hunter Echols took most of Jackson's reps when he was positioned on Rehab Island; Behind that trio, Raymond Scott, Tuasivi Nomura, and early enrollee Julien Simon saw the most action this spring.

Here's where things get intriguing as the Island culls itself from injury.  Veterans Solomon Tuliaupupu, Jordan Iosefa, and Eli'Jah Winston are looking to earn their playing time as each one is cleared to play, which if each are healthy, something or someone will have to give.  I anticipate a lot of movement here once the competition heats up.
Group-1: Mauga, Goforth, Jackson
Group-2: Echols, Scott, Nomura.

Defensive Line
Besides the loss of  SS All American Hufanga, the USC defensive line lost two others to the NFL Draft in Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu, but they still return a lot for 2nd-year Coach So'oto to work with this year; and he gets a full offseason to impart his violent knowledge. 

Brandon Pili, who most anticipated would be the guy to replace Marlon and Jay up the middle is out for the season after going down in the spring with a torn Achilles.  But the Trojans do have Ishmael Sopsher, the transfer from Alabama who we've yet to see, and the spring also saw the emergence of Jay Toia, who along with Kobe Pepe or even Jamar Sekona provide enough options to make up for the loss of Pili.

At defensive tackle, a few different lineups were used during the spring, and among the candidates who moved up the depth chart, De'Jon Benton, Jacob Lichtenstein, and Jamar Sekona head the list.  

And on the other side of the line, Tuli Tuipulotu saw significant action picking up where he left off last season, which was at the top of the depth chart.  Nick Figueroa figures into the mix when healthy, and if need be, Tuli can slide to the tackle spot.  And no, we have not forgotten about Korey Foreman, who will be ready to make some space for himself. 

Group-1: Tuipulotu, Toia, Figueroa
Group-2: Sekona, Pepe, Lichtenstein

Josh An

Defensive Line

Starters: Nick Figueroa, Ishmael Sopsher OR Jay Toia, Tuli Tuipulotu

Backups: Jacob Lichtenstein, Jamar Sekona, Kobe Pepe, Jay Toia, De’jon Benton

I feel a little uncomfortable slotting Ishmael Sopsher, the Alabama transfer who hasn’t played yet into a starting slot by himself, so I’ll put him in with true freshman Jay Toia, whose great size and explosiveness really stood out the Spring. Overall, the interior spot is probably the biggest question remaining on this defensive line. There’s a lot of candidates set to fill the void left by Marlon Tuipulotu. Nick Figueroa is recovering from labrum surgery, but I anticipate him being a starter along with Tuli Tuipulotu, who had an outstanding spring and is primed for a breakout season. 


Starters: Drake Jackson, Ralen Goforth, Kana’i Mauga

Backups: Hunter Echols, Raymond Scott, Sivi Nomura, and Julien Simon

Unlike the other groups on the defense, I anticipate the starters for the linebackers remain the same, so far. That doesn’t mean that guys like Hunter Echols(who was disruptive last season) won’t be in the rotation, it just means that when the “Starting Lineup” graphics come out, it’ll most likely include Drake Jackson as the pass rusher, with Goforth and Mauga as the two interior linebackers. Where Korey Foreman and Raesjon Davis fit into the picture could also shake up this group as well.


Starters: Chris Steele, Isaac Taylor-Stuart, Isaiah Pola-Mao, Chase Williams, Greg Johnson

Backups: Josh Jackson Jr., Jayden Williams, Dorian Hewett, Xavion Alford, Calen Bullock, Anthony Beavers, Xamarion Gordon, Briton Allen, Adonis Otey

With Olaijah Griffin gone this year, I expect his fellow Class of 2018 signee, Isaac Taylor-Stuart, to take his spot. “ITS” has always had the physical tools to be an outstanding player, and it will be interesting to see if this is the year he can put it all together. At the nickel spot, Max Williams’ ACL injury changes things. When Greg Johnson comes back, he will probably be the starter there, although the Trojans did give IPM and Briton Allen some reps at that spot too. If Isaiah goes back into his free safety spot, I’d anticipate that Chase Williams fills Hufanga’s position. It seems as though he has grabbed the opportunity to be both a leader on and off the field. However, guys like Xavion Alford will continue to push for playing time this year.

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A Pair Of Takes: A Way Too Early 2-Deep Roster Look (Defense)

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