For USC, things are looking strong on defense

USC linebacker Porter Gustin (45) and defensive lineman Christian Rector (89) run to the workout station during USC football spring practice at Howard Jones Field on Tuesday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times )

As the competition continues at USC spring practice to find a replacement for star quarterback Sam Darnold, Clay Helton can rest assured.

At least the third-year coach does not have to spend much worry on the defense.

After a couple of seasons lacking depth on the defensive line and at linebacker, the positions have several players with experience who are competing for playing time.

“Our strength is in our numbers,” Helton said after practice Thursday. “And how talented this group is.”

That development comes despite losing starting outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu and linemen Josh Fatu and Rasheem Green, who made himself available for the NFL draft with eligibility remaining.

The Trojans’ issue, and it’s one Helton said he was OK having for now, is that no one has distinguished himself as an ultimate playmaker.


“I really feel like there may not be a superstar right now on this team, and I told our team that that’s not a bad thing,” Helton said. “By the end of the year, let’s hope we have some superstars.”

Surely, a few returning players would beg to differ.

Senior Porter Gustin spent most of last season sidelined because of toe and biceps injuries, but returns this spring with a clean bill of health.

“I just feel right being out here,” Gustin said. “Been sitting on the sideline for too long.”

Said Helton: “He’s on a mission. It was so neat to watch him work because he’s infectious to everybody else.”

Last season, Gustin had 16 tackles, including three sacks, in four games. As a sophomore, he recorded 13 tackles for a loss, had 5 1/2 sacks and deflected four passes.

“I got to get a lot of film study in last year when I wasn’t able to play,” Gustin said. “Everything is just really comfortable and really coming along.”

Junior Jordan Iosefa proved his versatility last season, playing inside and outside linebacker.

He said his early playing time was valuable as he competes for Nwosu’s vacated spot. “Experience is the No. 1 thing a player can get,” Iosefa said.

Senior Cameron Smith and fourth-year junior John Houston return at inside linebacker.

On the line, firth-year senior Malik Dorton and fourth-year junior Christian Rector both have significant experience.

Brandon Pili earned time last season and appears to be a front-runner for a starting spot as a sophomore.

“The fact that I didn’t redshirt and that I was getting reps with the ones early, it really helped me get my technique down,” Pili said. “It really helped me interact with the older guys.”

Keeping up at corner

Seniors Isaiah Langley and Ajene Harris are among players practicing in place of cornerback Jack Jones, who Helton said would focus on academics this spring and would be suspended for the first game next season because of a violation of team rules.

On Thursday, Harris intercepted a deep pass from Jack Sears.

“Coach told me earlier last year that he’s going to have me at corner and nickel,” said Harris, who was recruited as a receiver. “So whenever I’m in there, just make plays.”

Helton emphasized that every position is undergoing evaluation, including cornerback.

“He’s done a great job,” Helton said about Harris. “I see the other guys coming along. I see Isaiah Langley continuing to get better and [Iman Marshall] is really playing good right now.”


USC will wear shoulder pads Friday, and the practice will be open to the public. There will be no practice on Saturday. “With this weather coming in over the weekend, we’re actually going to try to beat the weather,” Helton said… Josh Imatorbhebhe was absent Thursday because of a medical procedure but is expected to return after spring break, Helton said. Safety Marvell Tell intercepted a pass by Sears.

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