USC Dodges the Nick Holt Bullet


When Joe Barry jumped ship for the NFL’s Chargers on February 3rd, Lane Kiffin was given the task of not only replacing Barry, but finding a linebackers coach who would work in Monte Kiffin’s Tampa-2 defense, as well get players to buy in after the emotional loss of Barry. Thankfully for USC football, that guy was not the familiar faced Nick Holt, as it could have been.

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Sources close to Holt, told me that the recently fired defensive coordinator was linked to rumblings of a return to USC, presumably to fill the then-void of Joe Barry. Holt, a two-time Pete Carroll assistant, left USC after the 2008 season along with Steve Sarkisian, to join the Washington Huskies as their defensive coordinator. Unfortunately for Holt however, his schemes didn’t translate to UW, as he left arguably the greatest collegiate linebacker corps ever assembled (Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews, Rey Maualuga and Kaluka Maiava) and struggled to get players to buy into his coaching style, thus exploiting the belief that Holt’s been merely a benefactor of top talent, rather than a producer or sculptor of defensive ingenuity. Need proof? Watch the Alamo Bowl from December, or read Jeff Taylor’s take on Nick Holt, from The Husky Haul.

That game was not only one of the most exciting bowl games of the past few years, but one of the few times when the spectator could literally see a coordinator get fired before their eyes, and it not being just the imagination of an irrational fan. Holt’s Huskies gave up 777 yards and 67 points to Baylor, despite limiting the Heisman Trophy winner, Robert Griffin III, to just 295 yards through the air. On top of that, Andrew Luck and Stanford dropped 65 on Washington in October, while in other games this past season, Nebraska scored 51 and USC put up 40 points on an off day from Matt Barkley.

Quite simply, Nick Holt was outed in 2011, proving cynics who thought he was full of smoke and mirrors as far back as the mid to early 2000s. Holt coached the linebackers under Carroll as part of his first SC staff, leaving for Idaho a year before Pete ostracized his assistants and opted for youth after the 2004 season. Holt’s 5-18 record over two years in Moscow miraculously scored him a second stint with the Trojans, when he became the Trojans’ defensive coordinator in 2006 for the tune of a three-year deal worth a whopping $1.4 million. Right on cue, the Trojans marched to a 34-5 record with Holt seemingly in charge of the defense on the backs of Kevin Ellison, Taylor Mays, Lawrence Jackson, Everson Griffen, and the aforementioned quartet of linebackers. But given Holt’s success with USC and his failures elsewhere, the truth becomes clearer as to who actually ran the defense at USC: Pete Carroll, not Nick Holt.

Holt’s coaching wasn’t shutting out opponents in 2008, or turning players into top draft picks. Pete Carroll and Ken Norton Jr.’s ability to recruit and manage the defense on an executive and hands on level, in retrospect, was far more reliable than Nick Holt. Holt was merely a “Yes Man” to Carroll’s coaching, providing the Trojans with a projector of the Carroll regime, rather than an instructor. But he notion of this pseudo-defensive coordinator scheme really didn’t become visible until Holt’s stint in Seattle, as without Carroll to provide Holt with stability, he simply collapsed as a defensive coordinator at Washington.

So while word of mouth linked Nick Holt to USC once again this month, his return would have been disastrous. Not because of a lack of faith within the mind or voice of Monte Kiffin, but because Holt’s style fits more into the mold of motivator than innovator, and given the Trojans’ commitment to each and every play as evident at the end of the 2011 season, USC doesn’t need a motivator or a Yes Man, but an instructional driver, for the lack of a better description. USC has a bevy of young speedy linebackers who completely bought into Joe Barry and Monte Kiffin. To bring in Nick Holt would have just proven to be a stagnant move harkening back to USC’s old defensive scheme, as he wouldn’t have able to sculpt a Jabari Ruffin or Scott Starr into the Tampa-2, while taking Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey to the next level as outside linebackers. Signing Scottie Hazleton wasn’t a sexy move by any means, but hiring a coach devoted to Monte Kiffin’s style was the best thing the Kiffins could have done.