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    For season to stabilize, USC needs to unlock its defensive line
    • October 26, 2023

    LOS ANGELES — It was impossible to argue with Lincoln Riley’s preseason assessment of the changes in his defense, a locker room suddenly filled with heavyweights and transfer-portal talent, USC’s head coach delivering a late-August line eloquent in its simplicity.

    “More good players. Less bad players.”

    No disrespect intended. But on paper, it was the truth: filling the middle came the destructive Bear Alexander from Georgia and steady Kyon Barrs from Arizona, and the edges brought Jamil Muhammad from Georgia State and Anthony Lucas from Texas A&M, and USC seemed to have considerably more pieces for defensive coordinator Alex Grinch to maneuver on a turnover-predicated defensive chessboard.

    “Our defense is more complicated than last year, which is good,” returning end Solomon Byrd said preseason, “because I don’t think teams will be, like, able to get a beat on us.”

    They had their moment in the desert in a “Twilight-Zone”-esque night overall against Arizona State in September, running poor Sun Devils quarterback Drew Pyne ragged on an eight-sack night. Byrd, Muhammad, and returner Romello Height wreaked havoc from the outside. Alexander continued a torrid start rampaging through forests of interior offensive linemen.

    Opening the second half in Boulder the following week, as USC amassed a 41-14 lead, Muhammad brought down Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders to end a Buffs drive. Then Height tracked him down on a third-and-15 on the following drive, bouncing up into a “Karate-Kid”-style crane pose in celebration.

    Then teams, well, got a beat on them. And USC’s season collapsed.

    Since Height went Daniel LaRusso in that third quarter, 24th-ranked USC (6-2 overall, 4-1 Pac-12) has amassed just three sacks and a handful of pressures, a far cry from the front’s dominant early-season games against Nevada and Arizona State.

    Returning tackle De’Jon Benton brought down Sanders once more in that Colorado game, but Sanders largely avoided pockets collapsing through a variety of play-action and quick-hit fourth-quarter looks to dice up USC’s secondary. Then Arizona’s offensive line ground down the Trojans’ front. Notre Dame neutralized them completely, with just three pressures and no hits generated in a harsh loss. And Utah’s Bryson Barnes ran circles around them, exacerbating glaring issues with containing mobile quarterbacks.

    “Maybe just, guys are just out of position,” linebacker Mason Cobb said Tuesday, after Barnes ran for 52 yards and a game-sealing scramble with seconds left in the fourth quarter. “They kept running that lead and trying to chase it from the backside and play the read from the quarterback. And I feel like guys are just hesitant a little bit.”

    No player appeared more out of position against Utah – through little fault of his own – than freshman Braylan Shelby, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound tornado of a pass-rusher who Grinch deployed on the third play of the game Saturday to “put some bigger bodies on the field,” as Grinch said Tuesday.

    Shelby was torched, unceremoniously, on a wheel route by safety Sione Vaki for a 53-yard gain.

    It happened again, on a similar play in the fourth quarter, Shelby forced into coverage on Vaki as the Utah two-way dynamo took another catch for 36 yards.

    “There’s no justification for doing it, other than it’s a play that hasn’t shown up on video,” Grinch said Tuesday as the team prepares to play at Cal (3-4, 1-3) on Saturday.

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    And then the Twitter account The Trojan Blade dropped the smoking gun, clear and indisputable proof that there had, in fact, been readily available video of such a play in Utah’s previous game against Cal.

    Naturally, the development drew a fresh and unrelenting wave of ire against Grinch, the embattled coordinator who gamely shrugged off pressure when asked about it Tuesday. But beyond schematic choices, USC also had clear trouble getting simple production out of its new-look defensive front.

    Muhammad (six sacks), Height (four) and Byrd (five) have taken noticeable and consistent leaps as pass-rushers. But Alexander, after a dominant start, was benched for returner Benton after penalties against Colorado and was visibly emotional on the sidelines after being ejected for targeting against Utah. Lucas and Barr have seen inconsistent and largely unproductive snaps. Purdue transfer Jack Sullivan was dropped from the rotation entirely against Utah.

    “Probably, I can do a better job of – keep feeding all of them,” defensive line coach Shaun Nua said this week of his line on an appearance on the “Trojans Live” radio show.

    That line needs more mouths to eat, for this defense to play a role in salvaging the season.

    ​ Orange County Register