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USC’s defensive front passes first test, coaches say

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His name was inexplicably scrawled in the dirt, his fingerprints everywhere inside this tiny bubble of preseason camp, the rest of the world waiting outside for the calendar to hit late August and see what magic Caleb Williams could brew in a follow-up to a Heisman.

And so there was his first name, plain as day, off to the side of USC’s practice field Tuesday morning on Dedeaux Field:

CALEB

The world revolves around him here, Williams’ triumphant voice piercing through media availability from coach Lincoln Riley and defensive lineman Jack Sullivan, echoing across the field behind them as he appeared to emerge victorious in a friendly post-practice punting competition:

“Get me my money!” he yelled, as Riley spoke. “Run me my money!” he screamed, again, as Sullivan talked.

So the world revolves around Caleb, yes, and his spirals and stiff-arms will again draw a legion of eyes to Troy in 2023. But USC’s season, just as importantly, hinges on the front that has to swim and fight to get to him in practice – defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and assistant coach Shaun Nua’s defensive line unit, stuffed full of promise and veterans angling for snaps.

And it was that line – not Williams, not the Air Raid – that “won the day,” per Riley, in USC’s first scrimmage Saturday.

“I think overall, just as a D-line, I think we just really brought the juice,” said the mustachioed Sullivan, who repeated the phrase not a few seconds later.

Juice (noun): in this weekend scrimmage’s case, most likely referring to the defensive line’s ability to create pressure on Williams, according to Nua.

“That’s the best coverage we have is to apply pressure, especially when you have someone like 13 (Williams) back there,” the defensive line coach said. “So we’ve really challenged them that they’ve gotta show up in the passing game.”

It’s a major area of need to take USC to the next step, as the bitter taste still lingers of Utah quarterback Cameron Rising dicing up the Trojans’ defense in two of USC’s three losses last season. And, like so many of the Trojans’ positional depth charts, it is a deep and competitive group.

A breakdown of some of the key faces on the Trojans’ defensive line:

Korey Foreman: A versatile, explosive former top-ranked recruit who has yet to deliver through two inconsistent seasons on his high school promise but has turned heads in camp.

Anthony Lucas: A hulking 265-pound dynamo, Lucas comes as a sophomore transfer from Texas A&M with promise but also question marks. He played in only six games last year after he was one of four Aggies suspended following a postgame locker-room incident.

Kyon Barrs: A familiar Pac-12 face from Arizona, Barrs comes to USC as a redshirt senior from Arizona with likely the most successful collegiate career of any defensive-line transfers, racking up 102 tackles across four seasons. Riley said Friday that Barrs had stepped up his level of play in recent days, and Sullivan said Nua challenged Barrs in USC’s first scrimmage to tackle a variety of positions on the Trojans’ defensive front.

“He’ll give us a very great chance to be elite,” Nua said.

Braylan Shelby: A 6-foot-5, 245-pound freshman rush end from Friendswood, Texas, who’s made such a mark in camp with his speed that Nua said Tuesday he had a chance to factor into the line mix.

Elijah Hughes: A 270-pound freshman lineman from Virginia whom Nua pointed to as a standout newcomer in the unit from camp.

Solomon Byrd: A redshirt senior who carved out a role on USC’s defensive line last season after transferring from Wyoming and who’s “starting to separate himself” amid a group of veteran returners, Nua said.

Bear Alexander: A beaming 300-pound sophomore transfer from two-time defending national champion Georgia who’s perhaps the biggest X-factor in a crowded line group.

“You feel like he could really develop into something,” Riley said Tuesday.

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