USC defensive line coach Vic So'oto talks expectations, building 'culture'
In the middle of a Zoom call with reporters Thursday morning, as he was talking about the opportunity to truly install a culture within his unit this spring -- after not having the benefit of spring practice a year ago -- USC defensive line coach Vic So'oto put sophomore defensive end Tuli Tuipulotu on the spot.
"A lot of my time speaking to them is about development, is about your job on the defensive line, which, Tuli, what's your job on the defensive line?" So'oto said, with Tuipulotu also on the call.
The young defensive end didn't hesitate, sounding like he had rehearsed the response countless times already.
"To establish the violent, physical nature of football through relentless effort, both immovable and unstoppable. We do not chase -- we hunt," he said.
Anyone who has heard So'oto talk or watched clips from the practice field (see below) knows he has a real presence about him. His defensive line was at times the most impressive unit on the Trojans defense during that short six-game fall season, but building off a point defensive coordinator Todd Orlando made last week, that new defensive staff felt they lost a prime opportunity to really establish the culture and expectations they want by not having spring practice last year.
Instead, they finally got to work around the players again in a hastened preseason last October where most of the focus was on making sure everybody understood the defense and where to be on what calls with a little more than a month to prepare for the first game.
"I think not having a spring ball and being a new staff, there's a lot of different challenges, but one of them being, who is this guy? You don't really get to know your players to the depth that a spring season has and allows you to have," So'oto said Thursday. "So I'm getting to know these players more, they're getting to understand my expectations where there isn't a game we're preparing for on Saturday, and I think the culture aspect of it you can actually dive deep into and not worry about running out of time before we get into who our opponent is and making sure that we have them ready for formations or whatever. ...
"And that's what we're doing now, is we get out there to go hunt. And I'm looking for guys that are hungry and when they show up they know they're going to get the same thing from their coach. But at the end of the day, the culture of being the right type of Trojan, the culture of leaving the field knowing that the guy across from you feels way worse than you do, is what we're doing now."
A lot of questions to So'oto come back to some version or extension of that answer and mission statement.
For instance, he brought up 5-star defensive end Korey Foreman, who won't arrive until this summer, so as a follow-up question So'oto was asked if a firm decision has been made whether Foreman will be a true hand-in-the-dirt defensive end or play more of a stand-up pass-rushing outside linebacker role like his former high school teammate Drake Jackson does in this defense.
"[He] is going to be a hunter. He's going to go hunt the ball. Wherever the ball is, we're going to go send him there and go get it," So'oto said. "So if the quarterback's got it, he's going to have the quarterback. The running back's got it, he's going to have the running back. Just like every one of our D-linemen. We're going to put him in positions to go and make impacts."
So it doesn't matter where or how he lines up then?
"No, see ball, get ball. He's going to go get the ball," So'oto said.
USC ranked 45th nationally last season with 2.5 sacks per game (15 in six games) and 40th in tackles for loss at 6.67 per game. Those are numbers So'oto and Orlando would surely like to grow, but the defensive line felt like the tone-setter of the defense at points nonetheless.
Using PFF's stat "total pressures," which includes sacks, QB hits and QB hurries, the Trojans had a two-game stretch with some of their best numbers in years -- posting 30 total pressures against Arizona and 37 vs. Utah. They didn't have more than 27 in any game during the 2019 season and only topped 15 in a game five times in 13 games.
Meanwhile, the 2020 Trojans tallied just 8 total pressures vs. UCLA and 11 in the Pac-12 championship game vs. Oregon.
The small sample size of the season makes it impossible know which of those games were more the outliers. It also limits the growth and development that can happen over a full three-month season, especially with a new defensive staff and the aforementioned lack of a spring practice to install schemes and emphasize mentality and expectations.
"I think not only culturally, but technique and fundamentals and installing a brand new defense, I think spring ball would have done wonders for us. But we didn't have it, so looking back you could say, 'We should-a, could-a, would-a,' but last season was last season and now we're preparing for the next one," So'oto said.
It's fair to say the 2021 season will be a more telling gauge of what to expect on that side of the ball moving forward, and this spring has been a prime evaluation period with stalwart nose tackle Marlon Tuipulotu off to the NFL now and starting defensive end Nick Figueroa sidelined for the spring following shoulder surgery. Add in that Alabama transfer Ishmael Sopsher is out for the spring following surgery on his leg, and that redshirt senior Brandon Pili missed the first two practices and is being eased back in gradually, and a lot of young players have gotten significant snaps so far.
"We’re getting into the second week of spring. We’ve had two tackle, full-padded practices, which is really only on the defensive side, we count that as actual practice. We play in shorts, upper shoulder pads, but really when you’re grading people, it matters when you can tackle. We’re learning a lot about the guys in our room," So'oto said. "... A lot of guys have stepped up. A lot of guys are getting opportunities to show what they can do, and really positioning themselves for fall camp, when you can carve out a role in our defense. We’re moving guys around, all over the place.
"Some of you guys were at practice on Tuesday, and you saw Jamar Sekona dropping out into coverage. We’re seeing who can be versatile and who can go out and get a job. Who’s hungry enough to go out and fight for a job, to get an opportunity to represent the Trojans on Saturdays. A lot of guys are all over the place. A lot of guys are doing things they haven’t done in the past. It’s all by design, to see who can do what’s what."
With that said, and factoring in the injuries, there's not a ton to read into any sort of depth chart up front so far.
Also, while building depth is important, So'oto said he's not beholden to a fluid rotation up front if he has guys who prove they handle a lot of snaps and are the best option for the team at their spot.
"Ideally, it'd be great to have a full two-deep that rotates. But if you saw last year, I'm not afraid to play guys that just go out there and play and can play the whole game, like Marlon. Marlon played a ton of snaps and he even played on third down when usually you have to get taken out, but if guys are playing, if Tuli can play 90 plays at a high level and be productive, then he's gonna play 90 plays at a high level and be productive," So'oto said. "So who that is is still up in the air and who carves out a role for themselves in the fall is still yet to be seen, but a lot of guys have come in ready to work and ready to learn."
The spotlight position is replacing Marlon Tuipulotu at that interior nose position. The obvious candidate is Pili, the 6-foot-4, 325-pound veteran who has played in 38 games at USC while totaling 49 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. But he didn't play more than 35 snaps in any game last season, and he is getting a late start to the spring while missing the first two practices as part of COVID protocols, having to sit out 10 days after returning home for a funeral.
So'oto said as he ramps back up, he's looking for consistency from Pili this spring. He also acknowledged "it's his spot to lose."
"Honestly, he's the one that you look at the roster and say 'This guy should be it.' There's a lot of guys vying for a spot to fill what Marlon left behind, but I would say he has the best opportunity just by age alone and experience," So'oto said. "With him, it's showing that he can do it day in and day out and fighting off guys who really want to play."
One of those guys is aforementioned redshirt freshman Jamar Sekona, who earned praise from both head coach Clay Helton and Orlando for being the player who improved the most through the offseason strength and conditioning program. He's taken the early first-team reps at that interior spot, for what it's worth.
"I think, one, he was in shape. And I told the guys all the time, the sign of a good defense is when little guys like to hit and the big dudes run. And he came in in shape and he was killing all the winter workouts and put himself in a great position to get a lot of opportunities," So'oto said. "Now, what his role will be in the fall is still up in the air and it's still something that's being worked on daily. But he positioned himself in the best way that he could with these winter workouts and coming in in shape."
Sopsher, the big 6-foot-4, 330-pound Alabama transfer, is another name who would have gotten a look there, but he's out for the spring following surgery on his leg. He'll have a chance in August to compete for his spot on the depth chart.
Redshirt freshman Kobe Pepe (6-1, 300) and and freshman Jay Toia (6-3, 325) are natural options as well and have been playing behind Sekona (6-2, 300) so far. Toia may be more raw as a true freshman, but he's had some impressive moments in one-on-one battles between the OL/DL.
Between Figueroa (team-high 7 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks last year), Tuli Tuipulotu (2.5 sacks as a breakout freshman) and redshirt senior Caleb Tremblay, the Trojans have some experience to fill out the other spots up front, while redshirt junior Jake Lichtenstein and redshirt sophomore De'jon Benton are also getting significant opportunity this spring.
Foreman will plug in somewhere prominently when he arrives this summer, and junior Drake Jackson and redshirt senior Hunter Echols return in that pass-rushing outside linebacker role that complements the defensive line in this 3-4 scheme.
If there was a major takeaway regarding the depth chart from Thursday's interview with So'oto, it's that he is looking for the younger Tuipulotu to continue to grow into a primary role up front after his snaps increased throughout his short freshman season.
"[We want to see] more production on the field obviously, and being more consistent in how he holds other players [accountable]. Once you become a great player on the field, the best players make everybody else around them better. That’s something that he has to learn. Everybody in the room and on our team has to understand that once you become the guy, it’s how you become a legend is when you bring everyone else around you, make everyone else around you better in your own way," So'oto said. "... That’s the next step, to be a leader that brings everyone else up to your level as far as mindset and training. All the things that are off the field that good player leaders do -- that’s the next step, with being more consistent on the field."
Our guess is that Figueroa, Pili, Tuipulotu and Foreman end up commanding a large percentage of those snaps, with Jackson and Echols coming in at OLB (sometimes on the field together), and someone (Sekona, Sopsher?) emerging as the key rotation piece behind Pili. But there is still time for one of those other linemen to surprise, or at the very least position himself as the next man up should an injury strike.
Here's what So'oto had to say about a few of those guys:
Lichtenstein: "Jake has done a really good job in the weight room. First and foremost, he enjoys weight training. As a coach, you see pictures in the offseason where he’s by the beach, with his shirt off, and he’s ripped up with big old muscles. For me, it was like, let’s see what happens when we put the pads on. Credit to Jake. He’s got a very physical mindset to how he goes about things in the weight room. It’s carried over to the field, where when we’re not in pads, he’s still striking like we’re in pads, which I love. He’s been doing a really good job. It’s nice to see him out there going through everything, playing the run, getting after the quarterback. There’s a lot there that we have to work through, but what he’s done with his body this offseason and his mindset has helped me as a coach to push him and get him better."
Toia: "Jay is just like everybody else. Everybody knows that there's open spots and everybody knows that how you do when we have full pads on is going to directly correlate to how many snaps you get in the fall. So Jay is just like any other true freshman, mid-year, is understanding the playbook and figuring out how to be a college student and how to play at a high level with a coach that demands a lot. And he's been doing a great job. Again, another kid that has a lot to work on but doesn't shy away from contact, doesn't shy away from work, shows up every day with a great attitude to take hard coaching and to get better. So the sky's the limit for Jay and we'll see what happens these next three months, but the way he shows up for work is the same thing that Tuli has, just the passion for football and I can work with that."
Jackson: "Pretty much the same as everybody else, that he can produce consistently, get to know our defense better, get to know our coaches better, but then you want to see him obviously take a jump to where he understands defense, he understands why we're calling different things and it's not about his job anymore, it's about what I am seeing in front of me and how can I make an impact within my role. A lot of what we've done in the offseason with Drake is helping him understand the situation he's going to be in and how to be productive. And then he's another guy that I think the sky's the limit. A lot of pressure's being put on him as far as, I'm this big name -- the same thing that's going to happen with Korey -- but my conversations with him are, 'It doesn't matter what your job is on defense, the best thing about it is you can go out and make your plays. You don't have to hope an O-lineman blocks and hope a quarterback sees you to get the ball. You go out there and hunt and do it the right way, then you can get your job done and achieve the dreams that he came here to achieve."
Benton and Pepe: "Both those guys have done some really nice things. [Benton] changed his body just like Jamar changed his body, and he's come in with a new attitude -- he's running around, he's doing what he's great at which is being really twitchy and fast. And then Kobe has continued from last year with competing to get that starting spot. So Jamar has been running with the ones, but Kobe is right behind him and they're competing. That's what I love to see if they compete in everything, so those guys have done a really nice job."