2021 Fall Camp Preview: The defensive line

Erik McKinneyabout 2 months
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Tuli Tuipulotu
(John McGillen/USC Athletics)

USC’s 2021 fall camp kicks off with the first full practice on Friday afternoon and we’ll be previewing camp this week with a position-by-position look at the biggest storyline, notable new and returning names and what to expect during the 14 fall camp and 25 total practices before USC starts its season against San Jose State in the Coliseum on Sept. 4.

Previous entries:

The quarterbacks

The running backs

The wide receivers

The tight ends

The offensive line


The defensive line

USC's defensive line boasts some sure things and has some major questions heading into fall camp. The good news for the Trojans is that Tuli Tuipulotu and Nick Figueroa return at defensive end. Both were terrific during the shortened 2020 season and that was with Tuipulotu playing as a true freshman and Figueroa playing through a shoulder injury. More experienced and fully healthy, both should be among the top players at their positions in the Pac-12.

The most interesting aspect of the line deals with true freshman Korey Foreman, the top-ranked prospect in the 2021 recruiting class. He'll be expected to come in and produce right away. That might not be fair for a true freshman, but those are the expectations that come with being such a highly-ranked recruit. There isn't really an open spot with Tuipulotu and Figueroa back, but if Foreman is good enough, getting him on the field in various ways will be a challenge the USC coaches enjoy figuring out. At 6-foot-5, 265 pounds with great athleticism and elite pass rushing traits, Foreman should have the ability to put his hand in the ground or line up in a two-point stance as a second outside linebacker opposite Drake Jackson if the Trojans go to that look at times. USC will be okay at defensive end if Foreman takes a little while to get going at this level, but based on his talent level and work ethic, it would be a little surprising if he isn't making noise fairly early in camp.

Jacob Lichtenstein will also be someone to watch during camp. He's made plays whenever he's been on the field, but injuries have been an issue. He missed the entire 2019 season while recovering from a knee injury and then opted out of the first four games of the 2020 season. He returned to the program at that point but did not play in the final two games. If he can get it going during camp, it would give the Trojans some much-needed depth at defensive end. It'll also be worth watching to see if De'jon Benton can turn into a contributor this fall. He began his career as a tackle and made a quick impression, getting into four games as a true freshman in 2019. He's moved to defensive end and worked as a standup edge rusher through spring, and is a guy who could have some position versatility and provide USC with some needed depth along the line.

While Foreman will get more attention than any other true freshman, fellow defensive end Colin Mobley will be looking to make a quick impact as well. He isn't expected to make the same impression Foreman is, but Figueroa spoke highly of the way he's come in prepared to work and Mobley comes from a high school program that prepares players well for this level.

The biggest question for the line, and the entire USC defense, deals with what happens right in the middle. USC was hit hard at defensive tackle in losing Marlon Tuipulotu to the NFL draft, Brandon Pili to injury and true freshman Jay Toia to the transfer portal (and UCLA). The Trojans looked to have done well in landing Ishmael Sopsher as a transfer from Alabama, but the big tackle appears to still be slowed by offseason surgery for compartment syndrome. The Trojans do still have some answers there, but they'll need big fall camps from Kobe Pepe and Jamar Sekona to feel good about that spot.

Sekona put together a very good spring, while Pepe missed a chunk of it due to injury. Both will likely get an opportunity to grab hold of the position during camp and this is a competition that will be closely monitored. There is talent at the defensive end and outside linebacker positions, but it'll be much tougher for them to shine if the middle of the line isn't strong as well. There's really no overstating how important it will be for the Trojans to leave fall camp feeling good about at least one guy at that defensive tackle spot.

Stanley Ta'ufo'ou and Maninoa Tufono are a couple of wild cards up front. Ta'ufo'ou should be ready to contribute after spending the last couple years fully making the transition from linebacker to the defensive line. He's an interesting option because he could play defensive end or tackle, so he'll be able to provide depth at a couple spots. It would be a huge bonus if he could even push the presumed starters at defensive tackle for playing time there. Tufono, like Ta'ufo'ou, is making the transition from linebacker to defensive line. He's all the way up to 6-foot-3, 290 pounds now, but did not participate in spring practice.