Devon Kennard's years spent at USC were filled with many ups and downs, but despite the adversity he faced—a couple of position changes from his natural defensive end to middle linebacker and back again, followed by a pectoral injury that sidelined him for all of 2012—Kennard was a top defensive performer for the Trojans.
The Lott IMPACT Award finalist displayed a versatile skill set that saw him accumulate 60 tackles, nine sacks and 10 quarterback hurries in the 2013 season, which will help him become a prize hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end at the professional level.
With him leaving the Trojan ranks, who will step up and replace Kennard and his pass-rushing specialities on the D-line?
Cue J.R. Tavai, who is officially ready for his close up.
Across 11 games in 2013, Tavai had 56 tackles (eight for loss) and 3.5 sacks. He's played every position on the defensive line, which makes him an extremely flexible talent. He's backed up true defensive ends George Uko and Leonard Williams, as well as lined up at tackle when necessary.
The junior really came onto the scene against Arizona, when he started over the injured Morgan Breslin at the hybrid linebacker/defensive end position, and he did so without missing a beat.
Against the Wildcats, Tavai had an impressive 10 tackles, 3.5 for losses, seamlessly filling in for Breslin. This, after having just two tackles in his three previous games. He shined again against Utah, having a team-high 11 tackles and two sacks just two weeks after his first start at that position.
Tavai spoke with Mike Waldner of the Daily Breeze (Torrance, Calif.) last October about what the opportunity meant to him, and where he wants to take it going forward:
“I just got the opportunity and I took it,” he said. “If I get the opportunity again, I will play my heart out on the field. I just wanted to make plays and show that I can compete with the best. I’ve just got to keep competing with the same intensity (and) continue on so they will put me in more.”
With that in mind, look for Tavai to be one of the most important players to follow during spring ball, as that will be the beginning of him vying for the starting job.
Aside from Tavai, there are a few less proven players that could compete with him for this job, or that of replacing Breslin on the other side of the line. Jabari Ruffin, Greg Townsend Jr., and Quentin Powell, among others, could be in the mix for the outside linebacker job come the fall. But because Tavai has the most experience, he is the most poised for an immediate impact, and that is what head coach Steve Sarkisian will be looking for during the offseason.
Tavai brings his instincts and talents from his time as a down lineman to the table, which is incredibly invaluable. He's dominant against the run because he's used to playing on the inside of the line, and with his experience backing up Breslin, he's poised to break out as a prominent pass-rushing threat for the Trojans.
"He's going to be a beast next year," Kennard said, speaking fondly of Tavai's abilities.
After having an entire offseason as a stand-up linebacker under his belt, Tavai will be prime to replace Kennard as a key role player for the Trojan defense.
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All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise stated.