USC is desperately trying to improve its defense and will have to do so without half of their top tacklers from a year ago.
Starters Returning: 5/12
Key Losses: DE Scott Felix, DE Greg Townsend, NT Antwuan Woods, DT Delvon Simmons, DT Claude Pelon, LB Su'a Cravens, LB Anthony Sarao, LB Lamar Dawson, CB Kevon Seymour
Key Returnees: DE Porter Gustin, DE Uchenna Nwosu, DE Osa Masina, NT Noah Jefferson, LB Cameron Smith, LB Olajuwon Tucker, CB Adoree Jackson, CB Iman Marshall, S Chris Hawkins, S John Plattenberg
FEI Defense Rank: 30
S&P Defense Rank: 42
S&P Rush Rank: 35
S&P Pass Rank: 41
Turnovers Forced: 23 (14 INT)
Total Front 7 Rebuild
USC has to replace 6 full-time starters from their front seven on defense. Scott Felix failed a drug test and was denied his final year of eligibility and Su'a Cravens bolted early to the NFL. Things were going to be tough up front no matter what but those losses haven't helped, either.
The Trojans were smart to get a lot of young players involved last year, though. The likes of Gustin, Masina, Jefferson, and Green were role-players last season who will be asked to shoulder much more in 2016.
Cameron Smith was a major bright spot at middle linebacker following 78 tackles in under 9 full games as a true freshman and is the lone returning full-time starter. Even then, he missed the final 5 games with injury. Lots of jobs are open this fall camp.
The Trojans shouldn't have many, if any, questions about their secondary. All full-time starters are back, the roster is stacked with talent, and they should lead this defense.
There is plenty of room for improvement, too. USC gave up 7.7 yards per attempt (t-93rd) last year and while 14 interceptions is nice they surrendered 25 touchdowns through the air in addition to over 3,500 yards.
This could be a scary secondary but they have been lacking results on the field.
Continuing with Clancy
After a two-year absence that saw him not coach (2014) and work with the 49ers linebackers (2015) we have Clancy Pendergast returning to USC. The defensive coordinator spent the 2013 season in that role for the Trojans and was very successful while leading the No. 4 S&P defense.
The roster talent should really excite Pendergast as he looks to implement his aggressive scheme. It's really absurd how much clay Clancy has to work with this fall.
Comparing things with Notre Dame the Irish have 13 defenders with Composite scores of at least .920 while USC has 20 such defenders. That's a decent difference but the real change comes when you look at the players who were recruits with .940 scores or higher: Notre Dame has 4 such defenders while USC has 18.
That's a lot more elite talent at USC's disposal and most of it is young and impressionable.
USC has to be excited about the return of Pendergast and especially all of the young talent on defense. The real question is if they can turn things around immediately after a very mediocre 2015.
Pass rush might not be a big problem but they are losing a lot in this department. The Trojans finished tied for 13th nationally with 37 sacks but only bring back 10 on the roster this fall. Additionally, only 24.5 tackles for loss return from 85 total.
I'm a broken record but there's talent everywhere. The only spot that looks troublesome is the interior defensive line following yet another major injury to former 5-star Kenny Bigelow. Absent some roster movement there are only 5 scholarship interior players which isn't great. Still, USC has 5-star Rasheem Green blossoming, incoming JUCO Josh Fatu, and someone like freshman 5-star Oluwole Betiku could certainly play inside in Pendergast's system.
By the time the Irish visit Los Angeles I would imagine a lot of their sensational 2015 defenders are going to be seasoned veterans and playing at a very high level.