Five-star defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow is already turning heads at USC's spring practice. The 6'3", 295-pound true freshman enrolled early at USC to get a jump start at moving up on the roster and challenging for playing time this fall.
Bigelow has been practicing at nose tackle with the Trojans' second team and has made some outstanding plays, including two sacks in last Saturday's practice. More from USCTrojans.com:
On the second team defensive line, nose tackle Kenny Bigelow enjoyed the "best practice" of his two-week USC career, according to Kiffin. He had two sacks in the scrimmage. "It felt great," said Bigelow. "I wanted to come out here and have a dominant day and get my mindset right."
Both Kiffin and Bigelow acknowledged that he has struggled a bit with the adjustment, but bright days are ahead for the five-star talent. Kiffin called his first sack a "coming out play." "I haven't been to my full potential since I've been out here," said Bigelow. "That play was a glimpse of what I am really capable of and I think the coaches noticed that."
That adjustment Kiffin referred to is a big one—Bigelow played at defensive end and tight end while at Eastern Christian Academy but is now playing in the nose tackle position. So essentially, Bigelow went from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense and instead of being responsible for the line's outside edge, is now responsible for the interior.
Bigelow is a sack machine, but Bigelow's new position offers him a new challenge: operating with no space around him. Simply put, instead of having only one guy next to him, Bigelow is now surrounded by two defensive ends, one on each side of him. See diagram of 3-4 defense below:
Moreover, Bigelow's main responsibility as a nose tackle is to stuff the middle whereas a defensive end is responsible for pass rushing and outside containment. In the preceding diagram, the responsibilities of the nose tackle were specifically defined: "NT must be huge to fill the middle as he will take on C and a G." That's completely different than what Bigelow's responsibilities were in high school. The video below shows Bigelow making a sack from the outside position of defensive end.
The fact that Bigelow racked up two sacks in practice is superb but that's not a common occurrence. Of last season's sack leaders, only one played at the tackle position—Bowling Green's Chris Jones—and even then, he was playing with another tackle on the defensive line. Nine of the ten leaders in sacks either played at defensive end or linebacker.
Bigelow is now playing with no space to move around while plugging up the middle with bodies all around him. If he attempts a sack, he'd better have a good shot at making it because if he doesn't, the middle may now be open for the ball carrier to run through and make a big yardage gainer.
If the offense calls for a zone read—where the quarterback makes the decision to keep the ball or hand it off depending on what the defense shows—Bigelow's attempt at a sack could also lead to a big gain up the middle for the ball carrier.
A good example of this was in the 2011 game between Oregon and LSU. The Duck offense's zone read drew the Tigers' interior defensive linemen into the Ducks' backfield, leaving space for the ball carrier to rush up the middle. See video below:
Oregon has beaten USC three out of the last four years with this rushing offense and Bigelow will have to be careful to not over commit and leave the middle open. New defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has employed a 3-4 defensive scheme which should help contain the run since an additional inside linebacker will be positioned to back up the defensive line.
Last year the Ducks torched the Trojans' defense by rushing for 426 yards so obviously, stopping the run is a huge concern for Pendergast. With the switch to the 3-4, Bigelow's decision-making will be crucial, especially against teams like the Ducks. If Bigelow can't push off or disengage from a block, USC fans will see more of this:
The good news, of course, is that USC doesn't play Oregon this year. But USC still faces Arizona, Arizona State, Stanford and UCLA, four programs that have a strong running game.
We'll know soon enough how quickly Bigelow adjusts to his new position when USC hosts Utah State on September 21—while the Aggies have lost their head coach Gary Andersen to Wisconsin, quarterback Chuckie Keeton will severely test the defensive line's discipline with both his arm and legs.