How the USC Defense Could Look Under Clancy Pendergast

Sep 26, 2015; Tempe, AZ, USA; Southern California Trojans linebacker Uchenna Nwosu (42) flexes his muscles against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 26, 2015; Tempe, AZ, USA; Southern California Trojans linebacker Uchenna Nwosu (42) flexes his muscles against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Clancy Pendergast is returning to be USC’s defensive coordinator in 2016, and will inherit a much deeper roster for his 5-2 defense than he had back in 2013.

It took a while, but the long-rumored re-hiring of Pendergast is happening, which will bring back a familiar defensive scheme to the Trojans.

With the base 5-2 in hand, USC looks to poised to achieve the success they had three years ago, when they led the Pac-12 in total defense. And considering that Pendergast led the conference in defense in three of four years he was a defensive coordinator, the scheme bodes rather well.

Let’s walk through the defense and what USC fans can expect in 2016.

Say hello to the base 5-2 defense

Much like Justin Wilcox’s hybrid 3-4 defense that used a rush end in place of a defensive end, Pendergast’s 5-2 base defense aligns players similarly to the 4-3 at times. To be specific, it’s almost akin to the 4-3 Under, a scheme famously used by Pete Carroll at times, with Clay Matthews as a stand-up end.

The base defense will see that USC has five players at or near the line of scrimmage, including a pair of outside linebackers flanking a three-man front. Two middle linebackers sit back behind the line in gap control.

Here’s we can expect the Trojans’ personnel to fill it out…

Nose Tackle (NT): The job of the nose tackle under Pendergast is to clog up the A-gap. The simplest answer on the roster are soon-to-be sophomores Jacob Daniel and Noah Jefferson. With both linemen pushing 330 pounds, they’re not only bigger than Antwaun Woods, but have higher ceilings. They could rotate for Pendergast, along with senior Jordan Simmons.

Defensive Ends (DE): Pendergast won’t have Leonard Williams to play with this go around, but he will have Rasheem Green, who is a no-brainer at defensive end. Beyond him, there’s plenty of options to be had, including Kenny Bigelow. Though Bigelow is a true defensive tackle, and dabbled at nose tackle in 2013, the end role in Pendergast’s defense can function as a tackle making it an option for him.

Sep 26, 2015; Tempe, AZ, USA; Southern California Trojans defensive tackle Rasheem Green (94) against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Then there’s the case of Oluwole Betiku, Malik Dorton and Christian Rector. They’re traditional defensive ends, but could slot in either at end or outside backer for Pendergast. For the sake of argument, let’s say Betiku moves outside, while the latter two stay at DE.

Outside Linebackers (OLB): In 2013, Pendergast took 4-3 defensive ends Devon Kennard and Morgan Breslin and turned them into 5-2 OLBs. Look for a simpler transition, with rush ends like Porter Gustin and Scott Felix sliding further outside, along with Jabari Ruffin and Don Hill. Ruffin really seemed to come alive under Pendergast, recording 22 tackles including a career-high eight tackles against Cal in 2013.

Osa Masina could also find himself on the outside, as his game is better suited as a run-stopper on the perimeter than stuck in coverage at middle linebacker. He struggled for playing time with Anthony Sarao at the WILL linebacker spot in 2015, which could suggest that playing outside better fits his strengths. The same can be said for Uchenna Nwosu and Quinton Powell, both of whom were slotted in at SAM under Wilcox.

Middle Linebacker (MLB): The Mike is a plug and play role in the 5-2, with Cameron Smith expected to slot in once he’s recovered from his torn ACL. Smith had a big year as a true freshman replacing Hayes Pullard as the leader of the defense. His responsibility should only increase under Pendergast.

Weakside Linebacker (WLB:) Sarao is gone, which means it’s Olajuwon Tucker’s chance to inherit significant playing time. He should slide perfectly into the position after beating out Michael Hutchings and spelling Smith at middle linebacker late in 2015. Fellow Serra product and 2015 signee John Houston also makes for a strong candidate at WLB.

Strong Safety (SS): John Plattenburg had an up and down sophomore year, but looks to be the odds-on favorite at strong safety, should Marvell Tell stick at free. Leon McQuay III should also see time in the Trojans’ deep safety rotation.

Free Safety (FS): One of the most impressive freshmen in 2015 was none other than Tell. He’ll be back and ready to go at free safety, along with Chris Hawkins, who made the transition from cornerback flawlessly.

Cornerbacks (CB): There isn’t a position group on the roster more set for the Trojans than cornerback. It’ll be Adoree’ Jackson and Iman Marshall in 2016, with Jonathan Lockett and Isaiah Langley seeing ample time in the rotation.

To simplify…

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The return of the Rover?

Dion Bailey officially moved to safety in 2013, partly as a way to boost his draft résumé for the NFL. Yet, he was actually a rover/hybrid safety-linebacker for the Trojans that allowed Pendergast to from flex from a 5-2 base to what was essentially a 3-6-2 formation, when subbed in for nose tackle Antwaun Woods.

In 2016, look for USC to possibly dabble with a similar concept for linebacker Nwosu. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Nwosu has the size and speed to play safety, but is stout against the run and a sure tackler that could play outside linebacker if needed.

Considering the Trojans are stocked at outside linebacker due to the defensive end and rush end roles collapsing into one position with two spots, Nwosu is likely more effective as the rover than he would be as a reserve to the edge rushers and run-stoppers placed outside.

As a rover, Nwosu could drop into coverage to support the safeties when USC needs to mimic a 3-3-5, or play up along the line of scrimmage in a 3-6-2 variant. It opens up the defensive playbook in the way Su’a Cravens was supposed to do for Wilcox, but ultimately never did.

Embrace the Psycho Defense

One of the biggest coups of the Pendergast season at USC was the ability to completely shut down teams that deploy air raid offenses.

Washington State’s Connor Halliday threw for just 215 yards, Cal’s Jared Goff was limited to 5.5 yards per attempt and Fresno State’s Derek Carr had the worst performance of his career.

A big reason for it was Pendergast’s comfort in changing up the look of his defensive fronts, which disguised pressure and masked various coverages in what are called Psycho defensive packages.

These packages, seen extensively in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State, saw Trojans deploy concepts like a 1-5-5 defensive front, with as few as one down lineman.

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Linemen and linebackers look one in the same, with defenders standing around to prevent offenses from deciphering assignments. It also utilized rovers like Bailey and Cravens in high-traffic areas on underneath routes, which limited passing lanes.

While the Psycho is just another specific example, the common thread is that Pendergast’s willingness to adjust from drive to drive and play to play is where USC improves from the Wilcox era.

Both defensive coordinators posted similar numbers in just about every category, except the Trojans were significantly better against the pass under Pendergast.

Chalk that up to the disguised looks, compared to Wilcox’s calculated scheme that was steadfast and banked on defensive linemen winning their one-on-one battles.