USC Football Defensive Preview
It's called a "defensive" preview, but it's really more of a "who's going to be on the field while the Cal offense is there" preview.
I really hate saying this because it almost seems like a curse to Cal at this point, but there’s no other way to say it: USC’s defense is bad. Their secondary is bad. Their linebackers are really bad. They give up the most points per game in the Pac-12, finally usurping Stanford and Arizona for the bottom spot (32.5 points allowed per game). They give up the second most yards per game in the Pac-12 (422.1 yards allowed per game; only Stanford gives up more). Their defense is bad and they should feel bad.
They run a 3-3-5 or 3-4 defense, and like many teams Cal has faced this season, their strength is along the defensive line. Of course, after seeing the success UCLA’s defensive line had against Cal, it’s a near certainty that USC will try to bring similar pressure on Chase Garbers.
As is always the case with USC, they have a ton of talent on the roster, they just haven’t been putting it to good use. The biggest head-scratcher for the defense: where is the player development? (It’s not really a head-scratcher, the answer is pretty obviously “bad coaching”). USC has plenty of players who have “NFL attributes”; the size, speed, strength, or whatever physical attributes it is that earned them 4- or 5-star ratings from recruiting agencies. They have players who were good enough to start immediately as true freshmen—say, junior DE/OLB Drake Jackson, or 5-star freshman DE Korey Foreman—they make an immediate impact, and just… never get any better during their time at USC. I remember watching USC’s spring practice when Drake Jackson was a freshman in 2019. He blasted through the offensive line to get immediately in QB Jack Sears’ face, and made a ridiculous one-handed catch for the point-blank interception. It was a ridiculously athletic play, and I (and everyone else who saw that play) knew immediately he was going to be good. NFL sources have been floating his name as a 1st round NFL Draft pick this year (based on his physical attributes alone), but at least part of that rested on the assumption that he would take another step forward this year. And yes, Drake Jackson is still very good… but he’s not having the game-breaking impact that Kayvon Thibodeaux is having on every snap this year. He’s in a 5-way tie for 6th place in the Pac-12 in sacks. Is that what you expect from a potential 1st round NFL Draft pick?
USC’s linebackers struggle with missed tackles. USC’s defensive backs struggle with coverage busts. USC’s defensive line, I guess, is alright. Let’s take a closer look.
The chosen example of Drake Jackson and Korey Foreman in the introduction was no accident: I feel that Foreman is in the very same spot that Jackson was during his freshman year. Both players have freakish athleticism, and a unique combination of size, speed, and strength, which makes them very difficult to defend in the pass rush. The recruiting analysts at 247Sports project Korey Foreman as a first round draft pick, and compare him to former Cal/current New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan. Despite being a freakish athlete, Foreman really hasn’t made much of an impact after looking pretty sharp in an early-season game against Utah. Reports out of USC are that Foreman has been dealing with nagging injuries, but he just returned to play against BYU, so he’s presumably healthy again.
Watch as Foreman (#0 as the LDE) flies to the quarterback as he begins to escape the pocket:
Despite the hype around both Drake Jackson and Korey Foreman, I feel like USC’s most productive defensive lineman is actually DT Tuli Tuipulotu (the younger brother of former USC/current Philadephia Eagles DT Marlon Tuipulotu). Jackson edges out Tulipulotu stats-wise, but I notice Tuipulotu on a far greater number of snaps, even if he doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet. In the clip above, for instance, you may notice that a pretty obvious hold by Utah on Tuipulotu (#49) is what prevented the initial sack.
While I feel like some USC defenders might take plays off, Tuli Tuipulotu just has a high motor and is a very high-effort player. He might not have the same NFL prospects as some of the other defensive linemen, but Tuipulotu doesn’t quit on a play. Here he simply embarrasses Arizona’s offensive lineman for an immediate sack:
Here Tuipulotu keeps his eyes on the quarterback at all times, and gets the sack before he can even think about taking off:
Here Tuipulotu lays the lumber on mobile Colorado QB Brendon Lewis, blasting him in the back for what I believe was ruled a forced fumble that flew straight to Drake Jackson:
Tuipulotu is frequently making momentum-swinging plays. Here he punches the ball out from the running back for another forced fumble recovered by USC:
The nose tackle is Stanley Ta'ufo'ou, who I really struggle to say anything about here. In fact, I searched my entire season’s notes for any time I have noticed Stanley Ta'ufo'ou, and here’s about all I can say against him. In the season-opener against San Jose State, he had a tackle for loss on the running back for a yard. He had a QB hurry in the Notre Dame game. He committed late hits for unsportsmanlike conduct penalties against Notre Dame and UCLA. That’s it. That’s all I got.
I was conflicted on where to place Drake Jackson. Jackson came to USC as a defensive end and edge rusher, but USC’s depth chart officially lists him as a linebacker in the “B-backer” position: an outside linebacker whose primary responsibility is to rush off the edge, but occasionally they will drop into coverage. I don’t really care for dumb renaming of positions (USC used to call this position “the predator”), but the point is that Jackson typically lines up on the end of the defensive line, and he’ll even sometimes line up in the 3-technique (positioned over the right guard). So in my mind, he’s more of a defensive lineman, but given how terrible the other USC linebackers are, this would be a very short section had I not included him here.
Although Drake Jackson is definitely not a linebacker you want dropping into coverage (I believe he was on the wrong end of an Arizona highlight from my Arizona offensive preview, where he tried to cover the backup tight end Alex Lines on a wheel route), he does have good ball skills. Defensive linemen are typically taught to throw their hands up if they can’t get to the quarterback in time, in the hopes of deflecting the pass. Like the 2019 USC spring game I mentioned earlier, Drake Jackson is not going to deflect a pass that you throw in his direction. He’s going to catch it:
Of course, Drake Jackson’s skill is in rushing the quarterback. Here’s a standard big play by the USC defense: Drake Jackson pressure the quarterback into making a mistake, making a bad throw for an interception, but the INT is negated by the roughing the passer penalty on Jackson for the high hit to the quarterback:
The ball had already left the quarterback’s hands by the time Jackson hits him, so it was a completely unnecessary hit, as it would have been an interception regardless of whether Jackson hits him or not. I’m not going out of my way to show dumb USC penalties, this really just shows how frequently positive plays—on offense and defense—are negated by totally unnecessary USC penalties.
Drake Jackson does an excellent job of shooting the gaps, and using his speed and quickness to get into the backfield:
On the following play, Drake Jackson is just way too fast for the poor tight end trying to block him:
A lot of Drake Jackson highlights come at the expense of overmatched players, but he’s plenty capable of making plays against quality offensive linemen as well:
USC loves to move Jackson around on the defensive line to try and find him favorable pass-rushing matchups. After he beat Notre Dame’s right tackle, he beat the left tackle as well:
While Drake Jackson is clearly a star, the other USC linebackers are complete defensive liabilities. I’m not saying this to be mean, but I honestly think they are the worst linebackers in the Pac-12, and that says a lot given that Stanford and Arizona have glorified speedbumps in some of their linebacker positions. USC defenders miss an absurd number of tackles. They are routinely on the wrong end of my offensive highlights. If I were taking BYU offensive highlights, I’d have a ton of USC linebacker clips for the rest of this section, albeit not so positive.
I know that saying they are the worst is a completely subjective statement, so I looked at the PFF stats for data to support my conclusion. If I filter Pac-12 players who play at least half of their team’s snaps (I’m looking for starters; I don’t care if some 3rd or 4th string player whose name I don’t recognize missed a couple tackles on his 8 snaps in garbage time), LB Kana’i Mauga is the second-worst in the Pac-12 in missed tackles (20.2% missed tackle rate), and LB Ralen Goforth is third-worst in the Pac-12 in missed tackles (19.4% missed tackle rate). If we filter the entire FBS by players who play at least 80% of their team’s snaps (likely starters playing a big role on their team), LB Kana’i Mauga is 8th in the FBS in highest missed tackle percentage. Among all active FBS players, Mauga is 6th in the entire FBS in total number of missed tackles. The fact that he gets at least 80% of snaps while missing so many tackles is a sign that as poorly as he’s playing, USC really doesn’t see any better options at the position. Only Ohio, UNLV, Hawaii, and Connecticut have a linebacker that misses more tackles than Mauga, and a safety at USF rounds out the top 5.
Here’s one of Mauga’s few positive plays (by which I mean the running back only picked up 3 yards). Note that he goes for the big hit as opposed to wrapping up, which is probably a factor in his missed tackles, and one that can also likely be blamed on his coaching:
He makes the “mind blown” motion because these run stops happen so infrequently that he can’t believe it.
Interim head coach Donte Williams was elevated from the defensive backs coach, although he was primarily known for being an ace recruiter. I’ve never been all that impressed with the USC secondary (see any of my defensive articles from previous years), but there has been a noticeable uptick in complete coverage busts this season. I’m not sure who has been coaching the secondary since then, but there’s a nonnegligible chance that the answer is “no one.”
Let’s start with the positives. The defensive backs are generally good at fighting through blocks, e.g. on screen passes:
The coverage skills of the defensive backs are generally suspect, and generally lean towards overly physical/near-PI on the occasions where they aren’t shaken off by opposing receivers.
The starting corners are Chris Steele and Isaac Taylor-Stuart. Here the corner Chris Steele makes a nice interception on the contested catch:
Of course, in my view this looks like a simultaneous catch (in which tie goes to the offense), but the refs don’t even bother to review it and rule it an interception. USC is no stranger to ref favoritism.
Here’s another interception by Steele, where it looked like he may have gotten away with one:
USC plays overly-physical in coverage, and then is generally shocked when they get flagged for it:
Similarly, it wouldn’t be USC without some totally unnecessary cheap shot penalties:
The other corner is Isaac Taylor-Stuart, and he gets picked on a ton. The only person with a worse opposing passer rating than Taylor-Stuart is the safety Isaiah Pola-Mao.
Here he struggles to cover Arizona’s freshman wide receiver:
I mean, just a imagine your defense getting embarrassed by Stanford. Talk about a big OOF:
One of the better cover-corners for USC is actually one of the backups, Jayden Williams. Here he makes a great individual effort play for the interception:
The most impactful player in the secondary is probably the nickel/safety, Greg Johnson. Johnson does a good job of flying to the football, although like many other members of the defense, he’s more likely to look for the big hit instead of wrapping up a tackle, leading to a high number of missed tackles.
Greg Johnson generally does a good job of putting himself in the middle of the action. Here he correctly reads the play for an interception:
USC defensive backs should expect very little help, if any, from their safeties. In the following play, the receiver gets behind Johnson, who likely expected safety help over the top from S Isaiah Pola-Mao:
Schematically, the USC safeties are frequently out of position, which is why I have to think it’s due to poor coaching. But they are still good athletes, and can sometimes cover receivers well man-to-man:
It’s not always easy to tell from the TV broadcast what went wrong for the USC safeties without the all-22 film, but it’s not uncommon to see an opposing receiver all alone for an easy touchdown:
Here’s another recent example (i.e. last week). In the following play, CB Chris Steele passes the receiver off to the safety Isaiah Pola-Mao. When he does this, he needs to drop deeper in zone coverage, and Pola-Mao needs to overplay the man here in his zone. Instead, he bites on the fake and leaves a ton of space to the boundary for an easy touchdown pass:
Despite all of these coverage struggles, Isaiah Pola-Mao is actually being talked about as a mid-round NFL Draft pick! This is because of his speed and his rangy body-type (6’4”, long limbs, etc), and I’m sure the NFL pedigree doesn’t hurt— his uncle is legendary Hall of Fame Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. The physical attributes might be there, but his play has yet to match his potential.
Speaking of potential, USC unsurprisingly has some talented young freshmen who have yet to be ruined by USC coaching.
The freshman nickelback Calen Bullock (the backup to Greg Johnson) has probably shown the most impressive coverage skills of anyone on the team:
NB Calen Bullock has been tested a lot by opposing quarterbacks (as you do against young defensive backs), but he’s punished those quarterbacks with a couple of interceptions and some nice pass breakups. Similarly, the freshman safety Xavion Alford leads the team with 3 interceptions while playing only a third of the defensive snaps. Alford’s interceptions weren’t exactly highlight-worthy, but there is something to be said about a safety who is consistently in the right place at the right time for interceptions. Certainly he’s seeing the field better than the established starters.
The USC defense is the same as it always was under former coach Clay Helton. They will miss tackles as they opt to go for the big hit instead, they will sometimes land those big hits out of bounds or after the play is over for entirely avoidable but costly penalties, and they will use their elite speed to fly all over the field and sometimes in the direction of a play. Their linebackers can’t stop the run, and their secondary can’t stop the pass. The strength of this team is the defensive line, and so they will probably do their best to emulate UCLA last week and bring a ton of pressure on Garbers. Assuming Cal can hold up under the pass rush, you can expect this one to be a high scoring game. I am not looking forward to USC presumably getting their act together next year with presumably less-awful coaching.