Depth on defensive line gives USC confidence it can plug holes

Depth on defensive line gives USC confidence it can plug holes
USC has more depth on the defensive line this season, but Antwaun Woods (99) and the Trojans will be without starting defensive ends Leonard Williams (94) and Delvon Simmons (52). (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

As USC's defensive linemen prepare for the season, they have been asked one question over and over in various forms and phrasing.

Is there life after Leonard?


Leonard Williams was a two-time All-American and the sixth player selected in the 2015 NFL draft, by the New York Jets.

Senior nose tackle Antwaun Woods acknowledged the Trojans will miss Williams. But he said the linemen tune out the noise from fans and reporters.

"We don't listen to all the hype and 'Leonard's gone,'" he said. "It doesn't matter… Leonard is a great player but we just need another guy to step in and fill those shoes."

One player cannot replace Williams' production and the stress he caused offensive coordinators.

But for the first time in years, USC appears stocked with more than enough big bodies to man the defensive front and disrupt opponents.

The Trojans opened training camp with 15 defensive linemen — six more than last season — depth that coaches hope will help prevent late-game breakdowns that plagued the 2014 team.

The group includes five seniors, five freshmen and several players coming back from injuries or moving from other positions.

The linemen's average height is 6 feet 3 inches, the average weight 295 pounds. The freshmen average 6-5 and 303 pounds.

"There's some big mass in there," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "You just look at them when you walk by; there's some big dudes."

With Williams now playing for the Jets, the Trojans need more production from others, especially in pass-rushing situations. Last season, USC recorded 81 tackles for losses, which ranked 53rd among 125 major college teams. USC's 33 sacks ranked 33rd.

"We should be able to force teams into third-and-long and then we need to rush the passer," USC Coach Steve Sarkisian said. "That's an area we need to improve upon."

The large number of linemen should allow defensive line coach Chris Wilson to make more substitutions early in games, theoretically keeping players fresher for the fourth quarter.

Offensive tackle Zach Banner has noticed "different waves of guys" across the line of scrimmage during practice. "I'm getting a different guy in front of me, like, every two plays," he said.

The 6-foot-1, 320-pound Woods is beginning his fifth season. His main goal: Improved consistency with play that demands double teams.


"Be a presence in the middle that other coaches have to think about," Woods said.

Delvon Simmons, Claude Pelon, Cody Temple and Greg Townsend Jr., are other seniors on a line intent on stopping the run and creating havoc in opposing backfields.

Simmons said the added depth is crucial in practice as well as games.

"It gives us a chance to get a break and maximize every rep," he said, adding, "There's more competition at every spot."

Townsend appears back to full strength after being slowed or sidelined because of illness and injuries last season.

Kenny Bigelow, a third-year sophomore, also appears physically sound after recovering from a knee injury that sidelined him all of last season.

Bigelow, 6-3 and 290 pounds, said he would provide versatility. "I'm an athletic guy, a quick guy," he said. "I feel like I'll be able to help us out in long-down situations and normal downs as well."

Jordan Simmons moved from the offensive line to defense for the start of training camp and could make the move permanent.

Freshmen Jacob Daniel, Rasheem Green, Noah Jefferson, Christian Rector and Kevin Scott also have taken multiple reps.

Wilcox said Woods and Delvon Simmons have been showing the freshmen the way.

"Some veterans have a tendency to say, 'Hey, this is my fourth or fifth camp. I'm just going to do my thing.' But those guys aren't like that.

"So it's encouraging. It's good for the young guys to see."

Twitter: @latimesklein