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USC season preview: Leonard Williams leads front seven

FootballUSC TrojansSteve SarkisianNFL DraftPacific-12 ConferenceUSC
All eyes are on the offense, but is USC's defense what you should really be watching?
Preseason All-American Leonard Williams leads USC's front seven on defense
USC's returns five starters in its front seven, but depth is a concern

USC's high-speed offense is getting all the attention, but if the Trojans make a run at the Pac-12 title it will probably result from the play of its experienced defensive front.

There are five returning starters among the front seven.

First-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox implemented a 3-4 scheme that allows for multiple variations.

Junior linemen Leonard Williams and Antwaun Woods are returning starters. Despite a torn labrum in his right shoulder last season, Williams had 13 1/2 tackles for losses, including six sacks. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound Williams is projected as a 2015 first-round NFL draft pick.

Woods matured throughout the 2013 season, and new Coach Steve Sarkisian said after spring practice that Woods was one of the top performers and leaders. Woods was sidelined for about a week of training camp because of a hyperextended elbow, but he returned to practice and has said he will be ready for Saturday's opener against Fresno State.

Transfers Claude Pelon and Delvon Simmons, who are 6-4 and 6-5, respectively, add more size and speed. Greg Townsend Jr. and Cody Temple have struggled the last two seasons because of injuries and have limited experience.

Hayes Pullard and Anthony Sarao return to middle and weakside linebacker, respectively. Pullard, a two-year captain, made a team-best 94 tackles last season. Sarao started the final seven games, and then bulked up in the off-season.

Sophomore Scott Felix will start at outside linebacker, versatile senior J.R. Tavai at rush end. Felix emerged during spring practice and opened training camp competing with Tavai. Felix was moved to strong-side linebacker after Jabari Ruffin suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Depth is a concern.

Defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow, like Ruffin, is sidelined while recovering from knee surgery. Inside linebacker Lamar Dawson, who has started 20 games, has been slow to recover from 2013 knee surgery and is sidelined indefinitely.

Sophomore Michael Hutchings will back up Pullard. Freshmen Uchenna Nwosu and Olajuwon Tucker are reserve outside linebackers.

Questions about USC? Email me at LNThiry@gmail.com or tweet @LindseyThiry and I will answer questions in a weekly USC Now mailbag.

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FootballUSC TrojansSteve SarkisianNFL DraftPacific-12 ConferenceUSC
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