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2024 USC NFL draft class: defense

The USC defense has a lot to prove this year. Accordingly, the USC defense has a lot of players who have something to prove to themselves, to their teammates and coaches, and to NFL scouts and executives.

NFL evaluators will find a few clear-cut talents on the 2023 USC defense. Start with Calen Bullock, continue with Mason Cobb, and then move to the defensive line, where Jamil Muhammad and Kyon Barrs should be regularly productive players. However, after the small group of stars, there are a lot of unproven players who need to round into form this year under coordinator Alex Grinch. Obviously, Bear Alexander and Anthony Lucas are going to be huge pieces of this defense, but they are not going to be part of the 2024 NFL draft class. They will play at least two more college seasons before they consider going pro. In terms of the NFL draft conversation, you’ll find a lot of USC defensive players who won’t start but will need to be ready when their names are called this fall. That is the big overarching story facing this defense and its depth pieces.

Let’s take a look at some members of the potential 2024 NFL draft class, acknowledging that:

1) Not all of these players might declare for the draft; some of them are juniors.

2) We’re not assuming they will all be drafted. Far from it. These are players under consideration, but not (all) viewed as likely draftees. Some will be, but most are not.

CALEN BULLOCK

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 03: Calen Bullock #7 of the USC Trojans celebrates his interception for a touchdown and take a 28-7 lead over the Rice Owls, during the second quarter at United Airlines Field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 03, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

If you have looked at mock drafts for next year, you have almost certainly seen Bullock come up as a late first-round pick on some if not most of them. Bullock will be a top-50 pick as long as he avoids injuries this coming season.

RAESJON DAVIS

Sep 25, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; USC Trojans linebacker Raesjon Davis (9) celebrates after an interception in the second half of the game at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Late last season, USC fans wondered why Davis didn’t get more snaps at linebacker. This season gives him a big chance to elevate his draft stock and get noticed by NFL teams.

JAMIL MUHAMMAD

Apr 15, 2023; Los Angeles, CA, USA; USC Trojans linebacker Jamil Muhammad (10) chases a fumbled ball during the Spring Game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

Muhammad, at rush end, can make his mark as a pass rusher. The transfer from Georgia State will be central to USC’s ambitions this season. If he does well, the Trojans will do well … and his draft value will soar.

MASON COBB

Oklahoma State Cowboys linebacker Mason Cobb (0) brings down Texas Longhorns running back Bijan Robinson (5) during a college football game between the Oklahoma State Cowboys (OSU) and the University of Texas Longhorns at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022. Oklahoma State won 41-34.
Osu Vs Texas Football

Mason Cobb gives USC the reliable tackler it lacked at linebacker last year. Cobb will be a guaranteed starter (barring injury) on a roster where other spots are not as locked in. He will get every opportunity to show what he can bring to a defense. Along with Bullock, Cobb will have a lot of responsibilities on his plate. If he handles them well, his draft value will rise considerably.

JACOBE COVINGTON

Jan 2, 2023; Arlington, Texas, USA; USC Trojans defensive back Jacobe Covington (14) in action during the game between the USC Trojans and the Tulane Green Wave in the 2023 Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In a Pac-12 with Michael Penix, Bo Nix, and Cam Rising, Covington will encounter many reputation-defining moments this season. If he rises to the challenge, he will be seen as a draft-worthy cornerback.

CHRISTIAN ROLAND-WALLACE

Nov 14, 2020; Tucson, Arizona, USA; USC Trojans wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (8) is unable to make a catch against Arizona Wildcats defensive back Christian Roland-Wallace (4) during the first half at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The transfer from Arizona will be asked to shore up the USC secondary. A strong season in a Pac-12 loaded with offensive firepower will put Roland-Wallace in a good NFL draft position.

LATRELL McCUTCHIN

Sep 3, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans defensive back Latrell McCutchin (21) during the game against the Rice Owls at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

A big year for McCutchin — as is the case with other juniors or seniors on the USC defense — could reshape the calculus for the 2024 NFL draft. A less-than-convincing season would either lead McCutchin to transfer out of the program for 2024 or play one more season at USC to become fully ready for the pros. A lot of the juniors on the Trojans face this delicate situation entering opening day against San Jose State. McCutchin is one of them.

BRYSON SHAW

Dec 2, 2022; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Southern California Trojans defensive back Bryson Shaw (27) recovers a fumble by Utah Utes wide receiver Jaylen Dixon (25) in the first half of the Pac-12 Championship at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Shaw racked up a lot of tackles at Ohio State, but when a safety is tackling a lot, it means the linebackers aren’t tackling as much — or as well — as they should be. Shaw needs to be able to defend passes over the top and show he can keep up with elite receivers, providing timely help. If he can do that, he will be seen as a more valuable NFL piece.

TYRONE TALENI

Nov 5, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; USC Trojans defensive lineman Tyrone Taleni (31) reacts after a play during the second half against the California Golden Bears at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

Taleni is — as of this moment — unlikely to be drafted next year. Let’s see what he can do to change that in 2023.

STANLEY TA'UFO'OU

Nov 19, 2022; Pasadena, California, USA; UCLA Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (1) runs the ball ahead of Southern California Trojans defensive lineman Stanley Ta’ufo’ou (47) during the first half at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

This Trojan’s career has not taken off, and with Bear Alexander now in the fold, Ta’ufo’ou is unlikely to start many (if any) games for the Trojans. Yet, his depth will be needed over the course of the season. It’s a final chance to make a big impact at USC.

SOLOMON BYRD

Sep 17, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans defensive lineman Solomon Byrd (51) and linebacker Eric Gentry (18) celebrate after a fumble recovery ]af] in the second half at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Byrd made some big plays for USC last season, but much like Tyrone Taleni, those big plays were occasional and not relentlessly consistent. Byrd is unlikely to start at rush end, but when his name is called, can he deliver? If he does, that could get the attention of a few NFL teams.

SHANE LEE

Oct 29, 2022; Tucson, Arizona, USA; USC Trojans linebacker Shane Lee (53) sacks Arizona Wildcats quarterback Jayden de Laura (7) during the second half at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Wearing a cast on one’s hand kinda gets in the way of being a surefire tackler. Lee had to play through that limitation in 2022. Let’s see what a fully healthy Lee can do for this defense in 2023.

SOLOMON TULIAUPUPU

Jan 2, 2023; Arlington, Texas, USA; USC Trojans defensive back Latrell McCutchin (21) and defensive end Solomon Tuliaupupu (58) celebrate during the game between the USC Trojans and the Tulane Green Wave in the 2023 Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 17, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans defensive lineman Solomon Byrd (51) and defensive end Solomon Tuliaupupu (58) and defensive lineman De’jon Benton (79) force a fumble by Fresno State Bulldogs quarterback Logan Fife (10) in the second half at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 17, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans defensive lineman Solomon Byrd (51) and defensive end Solomon Tuliaupupu (58) and defensive lineman De’jon Benton (79) force a fumble by Fresno State Bulldogs quarterback Logan Fife (10) in the second half at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Tuliaupupu rates as another defensive lineman who won’t start but who will be important for this team as a depth piece. Making an impact when called upon would be significant on every level, including the NFL draft piece of the equation.

JAMAR SEKONA

Jamar Sekona — John McGillen / USC Athletics

Sekona is yet another player who won’t start this season but could change the conversation in a depth role.

DE'JON BENTON

De’jon Benton #79 of the USC Trojans — (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Benton joins a long list of USC defensive players whose draft stock is not high but who might find themselves in a situation where everything could change with a high-impact performance in a big game against a quality opponent.

KYON BARRS

Nov 5, 2022; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9) runs the ball against Arizona Wildcats defensive lineman Kyon Barrs (92) in the fourth quarter at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s an NFL draft selection. Barrs will be drafted next year, barring injury. If the USC defensive line performs noticeably better than it did in 2022, Barrs will be a central reason for that after transferring from Arizona.

KOBE PEPE

John McGillen / USC Athletics

Pepe is one more USC defensive backup who needs to be ready when the moment presents itself. That’s the pathway toward escaping obscurity and getting on the radar screen for scouts and NFL executives.

JACK SULLIVAN

Apr 15, 2023; Los Angeles, CA, USA; USC Trojans defensive lineman Jack Sullivan (99) plays next to defensive lineman Anthony Lucas (6) during the Spring Game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s see what Sullivan, the Purdue transfer, brings to the USC defensive line. If he and the other portal additions live up to their potential, the Trojans will have an improved team this season.

Story originally appeared on Trojans Wire