Who serves as defensive coordinator for USC in 2014 remains uncertain, following news that Clancy Pendergast is not expected to return. But one’s thing for sure, there won’t be a static base, as Sarkisian stressed in an interview on Saturday with Trojans’ play-by-play announcer Pete Arbogast, that a multiple-look defense is imperative.
Under Clancy Pendergast in 2013, the Trojans showed a slew of defensive formations, from the 5-2 against teams like Stanford, to a semi-traditional hybrid 3-4 and even an unorthodox 1-5-5 scheme that was deployed against pass-happy Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
One of, if not the most valuable pieces to the multiple defense of the Trojans, was the play of Dion Bailey, who announced Monday that he has decided to forgo his senior season at USC.
While technically serving as a nickelback, Bailey oftentimes played as a hybrid safety-linebacker. That versatility allowed Pendergast to make the transitions between various formations with the minimal use of substitutions.
Against Stanford, the Trojans only used 12 players on defense. Bailey swapped out with nose guard Antwaun Woods, allowing USC to flip back and forth between a pseudo 5-2 and a hybrid 3-3-5 nickel package ,with Bailey as a nickel.
Defensive coordinator candidate –and expected hire– Justin Wilcox operated very similarly at Washington, creating particular hybrid roles for the highly-talented Shaq Thompson.
Thompson, who was recruited as a safety in the 2012 recruiting class, played a role very similar to Bailey in 2012, labeled as a nickel. He played both back in the secondary and up to provide run support depending on coverages, and had enough of an impact in his first season to earn Freshman All-American honors at safety.
In 2013, Wilcox transitioned Thompson to more of an outside linebacker. The move enabled the UW defense to transform from a hybrid 3-3-5 base in Wilcox’s first season, to a more traditional, yet adaptive, 4-3 flex this year, with ability of a 3-4 appearance.
With Wilcox as the DC, there could be the precedence and a reliance on a multiple-D scheme that has the ability to build around a versatile player like Bailey. Without him, the Trojans could opt to replace him directly for the sake of continuity, or they could begin finding other players as potential pivots to create hybrid movement.
The pathway towards finding hybrid safety-linebacker like Bailey or Thompson, is through Su’a Cravens or Michael Hutchings.
Both players played both positions in high school, despite having very different first years in the college ranks. Cravens earned Freshman All-American honors from multiple publications as a strong safety, while Hutchings was primarily featured on special teams.
Cravens is a plus-tackler with the instincts to play against the run, which enabled Demetrius Wright to slide from strong safety to free this year.
Back when Cravens was being recruited in the Monte Kiffin era, it was believed he could be permanently converted to linebacker despite being undersized, just like Bailey was moved off of safety in 2011.
Cravens is arguably the most talented player on the USC defense and may have highest ceiling of a player following in Bailey’s footsteps. Though there is balance needed when taking into account that moving Cravens from a permanent role at strong safety to a roving hybrid linebacker could mean fewer plays on defense in which he’s on the field.
With Cravens as the hybrid linebacker, Leon McQuay III likely becomes the free safety, while a healthy Gerald Bowman plays strong safety. Josh Shaw is likely to also find himself at safety, a position where many have him projected in the NFL.
However, if the priority is to maximize Cravens’s impact and his playing time, while adapted to the depth of the Trojans’ linebacker corps, then Hutchings could fit into the role just as well, as a near Shaq Thompson clone.
It would keep Cravens at strong safety and likely enable either Shaw or McQuay to play at corner, where the Trojans have struggled. Bowman would serve as a viable catch-all safety, much like Demetrius Wright had been the last two seasons.
Hutchings, at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, is slightly bigger than both Cravens and Bailey, and was recruited primarily as a linebacker. Another year of offseason training could see him filling out much like the aforementioned Thompson, who got up 225 pounds for his 2013 move to linebacker.
Should Wilcox get the defensive coordinator position, it would be interesting to see how similar of roles that Hutchings and Thompson would share in his defense, given that both players have plenty of experience at safety, despite being stressed as linebackers.
Also, it would be unwise not to mention that the linebacker corps as a whole could see plenty of new looks in 2014. Wilcox has relied on a stand-up defensive end in the past, enabling the 4-3 to flex into a 3-4. Assuming J.R. Tavai becomes that guy, there’s still plenty of faces for other linebacker positions, with Lamar Dawson, Anthony Sarao, Jabari Ruffin and Scott Starr all competing with Hutchings for roles at linebacker.
For the time being, Bailey’s departure stings. But with the depth that USC has at linebacker in what’s expected to be Wilcox’s defense, there’s options to play around with personnel that could put the Trojans into a good place.