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Front-seven development could define USC’s season

Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire

LOS ANGELES — USC football’s first fall practice on the hallowed grounds of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum brought a bit more gusto from the Trojans’ defense.

“There’s something special about every time you walk in this place,” head coach Clay Helton said from the Coliseum turf Monday evening. “It kinda makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck, and that’s what I want the kids to feel. Every time they walk in here, they turn it up a notch.”

Turn it up a notch they did. Sporting pads with full-go contact for controlled scrimmage and red-zone drills, the USC defense relished an opportunity to hit somebody — even if that somebody also sported cardinal and gold.

“Defensively, the highlight of the day was when we put it on the 10-yard line four times, and they stopped the offense three out of the four times,” Helton said. “In spring, when we put it down and challenged them, and we ran power three times, we would get 8-to-10 yards. They turned it back today.”

Much of the credit for the successful red-zone period goes to the front seven — a welcome sign for a unit with questions heading into a critical opening month.

No single element of USC’s 2016 makeup elicits more questions than the front seven, specifically the defensive line.

USC replaced All-American Leonard Williams about as well as it could have in 2015, getting production from the trio of Antwaun Woods, Delvon Simmons and Greg Townsend. However, the unit has again suffered considerable losses — and not just with the departure of a single player.

Woods, Simmons and Townsend all exhausted their eligibility. Coupled with linebacker Su’a Cravens, who opted to forego his final year of eligibility and enter the NFL Draft, the Trojans must replace their four leaders in tackles for loss.

USC recorded five tackles for loss or fewer in seven games last season. It lost four of those games.

USC thrives when it can generate consistent pressure, particularly with defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast re-implementing a 5-2 base formation. As the Trojans’ coordinator in 2013, Pendergast oversaw a defense that ranked 19th nationally with 91 tackles for loss.

“It’s too early to tell,” Pendergast said of any strides he’s seen in the line from the spring into fall camp. “I’ll be able to answer that better in four or five practices. But they’re working hard. The techniques are completely different from what they’ve done in the past. We’ve had a lot of old habits to break in the springtime. Hopefully we don’t have to break them much longer.”

Once the habits become more uniform, the good news for the Trojans is that the talent is there to thrive.

Rasheem Green, who returned a fumble for a touchdown in USC’s division-clinching defeat of UCLA last November, has an opportunity to grow into the unit’s star.

Pendergast also praised freshman Oluwole Betiku, citing his “ability to run and change direction for a big man.”

The defensive front will need to gain immediate contributions from first-timers, much like last year’s linebackers.

The Trojans’ 2015 linebacker corps was talented but inexperienced. That group heads into the 2016 campaign more experienced, which could be the USC defense’s life-preserver in the early part of a challenging first month.

USC opens with Alabama, Stanford and Utah, college football’s No. 32, 19 and 46 rushing offenses a season ago. All three employ physical styles, making hard-hitting practices like the Trojans’ effort Monday all the more vital for September.

By the time that treacherous schedule starts, 2015 breakthrough star Cam Smith should be back to 100 percent.

Smith participated in angle tackling drills Monday, but spent much of the practice on the sidelines. Helton compared keeping Smith out to “caging a damn lion.”

“I’m begging for more reps,” Smith said. Part of taking more reps means acclimating to the 5-2, which Smith noted will require some adjustment.

He said he was “floating” in former coordinator Justin Wilcox’s scheme a year ago, while in Pendergast’s system, he’ll focus more on the interior.

It’s still very much a work in progress, but a few more spirited practices like Monday’s will get USC’s front seven ready for a challenging season.

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