USC Football: 16 Players Who Will Be Most Impacted by Switch to 5-2 Defense
After years of struggling against the many uptempo offenses found in the Pac-12, head coach Lane Kiffin turned to a former foe to address USC's inability to contain them.
When Kiffin hired former Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to overhaul the Trojan defense, it signaled a change not only with the philosophy but also the formation itself.
Gone was the 4-3 defense with its three linebackers that USC ran for years. Instead, it has now been replaced with a 3-4 scheme that most often takes on a 5-2 alignment with only two linebackers behind the defensive line.
Designed to be more responsive to spread offenses, the 5-2 defense features an interior line that consists of a nose tackle over the offensive center and has two ends, one on either side of him.
On either side of the interior line reside the outside linebackers, which make up the "5" portion of the 5-2 defense. The "2" part of the formation? Those are the middle and inside linebackers.
So far, so good, but how does this affect the personnel USC has on defense?
This slideshow will look at those players most affected by the switch to this alignment.
Will Trojan studs like Morgan Breslin and Leonard Williams thrive in this new-look D?
Yes, and here is how they will do it...
Note: Thanks to Topher Doll of SB Nation for explaining some of the nuances of the 5-2 defense
Demetrius Wright, Josh Shaw or Gerald Bowman (Free Safeties)
The 5-2 defense comes in several forms, and depending on the formation, the free safety takes on different roles.
This is particularly true when Pendergast decides to call the "5-2 Monster Formation."
In this alignment, the weak-side linebacker comes up to the line of scrimmage to cover the "Y" receiver, and the free safety takes his place in terms of gap responsibilities.
This formation is not run often because it leaves only the strong safety to cover deep passes, but depending on the offensive formation, it has its place every now and then.
Especially in this formation, the free safeties are definitely impacted by the 5-2 defense.
Antwaun Woods, Cody Temple or Kenny Bigelow (Nose Tackle)
In the 5-2 alignment, the nose tackle is primarily responsible for eating up space in the middle of the line.
Placed between the two ends, the nose position usually lines up over the offensive center, which means, depending on which gap the nose attacks, the offensive guard will have to double-team the nose along with the center.
While this position does not result in gaudy stats such as sacks and tackles for loss, it is crucial that the nose tackle demands that extra attention which will free up space for the ends and outside linebackers to attack gaps.
Leonard Williams, George Uko, J.R. Tavai, Etc. (Defensive Ends)
In the old 4-3 formation, Leonard Williams and Co. would be tackles, with the defensive ends lining up just to their outside.
However, in the 5-2 formation, the ends now line up to either side of the nose tackle with a larger space between the ends and the outside linebackers (who also line up on the line of scrimmage, but not with a hand on the ground).
Depending on the attention the nose tackle draws, either Williams or Uko could find an open gap to attack the offensive backfield.
Look for both of the end positions to be extremely active, resulting in increased production for both Williams and Uko if the nose tackle can clog the middle.
Morgan Breslin, Devon Kennard, Jabari Ruffin, Etc. (Outside Linebackers)
In some descriptions of the 5-2 defense, the defensive players on the outside of the line are called "defensive ends." However, in Pendergast's scheme, they are called "outside linebackers."
Whatever they are called, USC has a pair of outstanding players for those positions in Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard.
The primary difference—beyond the placement on the line itself—is that the outside linebackers play upright, while in the 4-3, the defensive ends have their hand on the ground.
Look for the outside linebackers to have a big year in 2013 as they provide containment on the edges while the interior line forces the action wide.
Hayes Pullard, Michael Hutchings, Etc. (Weak-Side Linebacker)
For the most part, in the 5-2 alignment, the weak-side linebacker and the middle linebacker really should be called "left-side linebacker" and "right-side linebacker" because that really describes their responsibilities in the second level of the defense.
However, in certain formations—such as the aforementioned "Monster Formation"—the weak-side linebacker can play on the line of scrimmage and cover the "Y" receiver.
For the most part, though, the weak-side linebacker (and the middle linebacker) will start in the second level and shoot gaps when they present themselves and stay home and protect their area when they don't.
Anthony Sarao, Lamar Dawson, Etc. (Middle Linebacker)
As is the case with the weak-side linebacker, the middle linebacker mostly has the responsibility to maintain containment for his area of the field when he is not shooting gaps to exploit holes the front five opens up.
However, it is the middle linebacker's responsibility (usually) to call different formations within the 5-2 scheme when he reads keys based on the offensive alignment.
For this reason, the middle linebacker must not only be very athletic but very cerebral as well.
The 5-2 defense has a few different alignments such as the "Monster," "Basic" and "Modern."
With few exceptions, these formations all have the same look, but in some cases the responsibilities vary.
In all formations, the 5-2 requires the cornerbacks to be very capable in man coverage, and it is this area that Trojan fans should be concerned about.
With the corners being the primary worry for USC defensively in 2013, it is going to take tremendous improvement in this area for the 5-2 to be at its best for the Trojans this year.
However, if the defensive secondary can hold its own, this defense has a chance to be very good because there are few teams stronger than the Trojans in the front seven.
Will USC make Clancy Pendergast look like a genius in 2013?
Perhaps, but what we know for sure is that the defense couldn't look much worse than it did in 2012.