August 1, 2008

Position preview: D-line

For a big chunk of the summer, the Trojan offense had its hands full with the back seven of the USC defense.

Add the four guys on the defensive front, and things should get even tougher.

A year ago, the Trojan defensive line dominated, helping USC end the season as one of the nation's most feared defenses.

But a pair of key losses from last year's group has paved the way for some new names to step into the trenches.

A pair of starters from last year's defensive line graduated, and both were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.

Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, picked seventh by the New Orleans Saints, had a very productive senior season - recording 58 tackles and 8.5 sacks.

A pair of Trojans will be battling through all camp to replace the 300-pound void on the defensive line.

Averell Spicer, a redshirt junior, has spent the past two seasons playing under Ellis at nose tackle. He seemed the logical replacement until a knee injury sidelined him for the entirety of spring practice.

"It was one of those injuries that came from wear and tear. I started to feel it at the end of last year. I first started feeling it in the weeks leading up to the Rose Bowl," Spicer said. "Then when we started working out again before the spring, we were doing jumps and I landed on it funny. I stopped working out."

With Spicer sidelined, Christian Tupou got plenty of first team reps, and the sophomore made the most of his chances, becoming one of spring's biggest surprises.

"I was actually blessed. It was a blessing to have an opportunity open up for me," he said. "Every practice, I was the guy. Each one of those days, I had to prove to those coaches that I deserved to be in the starting lineup.

"My goal is to start, but I know it comes with a lot of work."

While Tupou and Spicer battle, there's zero question who will man the other tackle spot. Senior Fili Moala said "No" the NFL, choosing to return for his senior season.

With his future ahead of him, Moala's concentrating on staying in the moment.

"Knowing that this is my last go around, I feel like there's a lot of responsibility for me to not only get myself right and in the best shape I can, but to get my guys right," Moala said. "I want to make sure they're mentally prepared and physically ready for a long season.

"We have to come in every Saturday with the mentality of winning and, more so, dominating."

The defensive ends have plans on dominating, as fellow senior Kyle Moore hopes to have the same impact on the line that Lawrence Jackson had a year ago before becoming the Seattle Seahawks' first-round pick.

Like Spicer, Moore missed the spring with a knee injury, but it didn't slow him during summer workouts. He took the opportunity this summer to establish himself as one of the team's leaders.

"You have to bring leadership out here. We lost a lot of that," Moore said. "The seniors really have to step up and show the younger guys how we play and what it takes to work out here.

"When I cam up, guys taught me. Now, it's my turn."

Replacing Jackson on the line, sophomore Everson Griffen is ready to build on a fabulous freshman season. Griffen, an explosive athlete, is more than ready for the spotlight; he craves it.

"I'm just ready for my time. Once the game rolls around and I get on the field, I do what I do," Griffen said. "I'm just here to help the team. I want the team to do well. If you work hard, then the team will work hard. When it's game time, it's going to show.

"Because if everyone is working hard together, there won't be any loose screws."

Complimenting what Griffen and Moore bring, senior Clay Matthews will move down from linebacker from time to time, adding even more quickness on the outside.

"The idea behind is to move a faster, bigger guy to defensive end to bring more speed coming off the edge," Matthews said. "It'll give us faster stunts and just provide more speed on the field. That's what I hope to accomplish."

The depth on the defensive line is a bit of a question, though.

Gerald Washington will add depth at defensive end, and Derek Simmons and DaJohn Harris will back up the defensive tackles.

The depth, though, will almost certainly be bolstered by a strong freshman class.

Wes Horton and Malik Jackson spent their summers working out with the team, and Nick Perry could join the team some time in August if the NCAA clears him.

Horton, who will team with his brother, safety Shane Horton, said he's prepared for the adjustments required when taking the step as a player.

"It's all about being able to compete at such a high level each and every play. In high school, we're the best of the best. We can basically do what we want to do because we're the best," Horton said. "At the next level, you have to be on a high level every single play. It takes a lot to be able to compete like that on every play.

"That's a huge adjustment. There are a ton of aspects, and I just want to go in with an open mind, try to learn the playbook and be ready to play right away."

Jackson appeared to be an academic causality, but the USC coaches shared his confidence that he could qualify.

"I got the offer because the coaches liked my character," Jackson said. "They knew my grades were kind of bad, but they felt after they got done talking to me that I could do it. I could turn it around, and that's how I got the offer.

"I was excited."

Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey also had some academic hurdles to clear. Casey reportedly has been cleared, and he's on the path to making an impact despite not possessing the tallest frame.

"It's always helped me to play at a smaller size because it helped me move," he said. "I'd like to lose a little more weight. But every time I gained weight, I've still been able to move."

Size won't be an issue with the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Armond Armstead. Armstead certainly has the physical tools, and after an impressive summer, he hopes to prove the coaches who recruited him right.

"The coaches have told me that I have a good chance to come in and play," Armstead said. "I just want to compete. I know I'll doing everything I can to be ready to play."

Whether old or young, the group had an impressive summer. Moala said he's taking the right attitude into the fall, and the rest of the line is ready to follow.

"Once you get back into football, it's a job. You have to be here; you have to be accountable for everything you do," he said. "You have to be ready for the coaches to depend on you. Those are all the things as a senior that I'd like to be.

"I want to take this team as far as I can take them."

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