Can Clancy Pendergast’s second stint in charge of the USC football defense put the Trojans back atop the Pac-12 standings? His system and USC’s talent are more suited for each other.
With the official announcement of Kenechi Udeze yet to be announced but expected in the very near future, it appears that first-year coach Clay Helton has his staff finalized.
Like the hire of Helton himself, this staff will need to be evaluated not merely upon whether or not they land a Top 10 recruiting class (although that seems probable), but whether or not they win ten or more games per season and are consistently winning Pac-12 Championships and challenging for a playoff berth.
Will it be easy? Not by a long shot. With the hardest schedule in college football, Helton has his work cut out for him and will need to quiet the skepticism about his hire by winning and winning quickly.
Having said that, there are some very positive sides to what Helton has done so far. Perhaps the best was bringing back Clancy Pendergast as the new defensive coordinator to replace the often-criticized Justin Wilcox.
Unlike Wilcox, who ran a 3-4 scheme that was more of a 4-3 in that it often prioritized speed over strength, Pendergast runs a 5-2, which is a 3-4 that treats the outside linebackers as if they were additional defensive linemen.
So can Pendergast’s system get the more out of USC’s talent than Wilcox’s?
Like Wilcox’s 3-4, Pendergast’s 5-2 uses three down linemen in its base, two ends and one nose guard.
Sep 26, 2015; Tempe, AZ, USA; Southern California Trojans defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow Jr. (95) celebrates following the game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
For ends, the Trojans have even better candidates than they did in 2013 when Pendergast was coordinator due to the fact that now nearly all of them were recruited to play in a 3-4 system. Players such as Rasheem Green, Kenny Bigelow, Noah Jefferson, and Christian Rector have the prototypical size and aggressiveness for this system, and they will be desperately needed if this system to excel. Just like the line on offensive, if the defensive line is not getting penetration the rest of the defense greatly suffers.
While USC has many candidates to play end, the only true nose guard on the roster is Jacob Daniel, who played very sparingly last season. Nose guard is the heart of this defense, as he must engage the center and a guard on every snap, so center of gravity and staying low are crucial.
It is possible that someone like Noah Jefferson and Kenny Bigelow could play nose guard, but Jefferson’s 6-foot-6 height could be an issue and Bigelow has lost considerable weight in his time at USC and is more of an ideal size for an end.
Pendergast often uses two down linemen and uses an extra defensive back when playing against spread offenses, so this may not be an issue most of the time in the Pac-12. But against the likes of Alabama and Stanford, look out.
Four linebackers are used in this system like the previous one, but the outside linebackers are treated as defensive ends.
Sep 26, 2015; Tempe, AZ, USA; Southern California Trojans linebacker Cameron Smith (35) against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
This system will fit Porter Gustin well, as he will likely play the role of Predator (a name Pendergast coined for outside linebacker) while the role of Sam is left open with the void left by the early departure of Su’a Cravens.
This would provide Osa Masina with an opportunity to move outside, as he is a good pass rusher and has the speed to play in space in coverage as well.
Assuming that Cameron Smith returns from his injury in good health, he will resume his role as middle linebacker, and the other linebacker spot will be up for grabs between Olajuwon Tucker, John Houston, and Osa Masina, should he remain in his current position.
This is the unit that most likely will be helped the most by the 5-2, as it will allow the group to be more aggressive. It also will help that their size fits the system even better than the players utilized in 2013.
Like Todd Graham at Arizona St., Pendergast blitzes nearly every play, so the linebackers will need to get pressure in order to help out the defensive backs.
Here is where things get tricky.
The last time that Pendergast was defensive coordinator, he coached the defensive backs himself. Since he blitzes about 50-70% of the time, he often has defensive backs play man-to-man coverage.
Unfortunately, the last time that he was at USC there were not many defensive backs, and those that were available were not very consistent. This time, there will be lots of talent, but still much to prove. Since there will be many occassions with five or six defensive backs on the field, they will need to hold their own.
Pendergast prefers bigger defensive backs, so cornerback Iman Marshall and safeties Ykili Ross and Marvell Tell will fit the mold. Leon McQuay, who was inconsistent the last two seasons, was very good in Pendergast’s scheme, so that is a ray of light. Adoree Jackson will more than likely see his role on offense lessen with Pendergast’s demands, so his play should also get better.
USC’s main problem in pass coverage has been defensive backs running with receivers, so that will need to be a key focus in spring practice and fall camp.
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When Pendergast left USC, he left them as the top unit in the conference and Top 25 in the country. This time around, he enters the fold with more bodies and arguably much more talent. He will also have the luxury of being able to oversee the entire defense, since Ronnie Bradford will coach defensive backs.
With a new QB in 2016 and no idea yet what the offense will be, the defense will have to play well early on to give the Trojans a chance to fufill what they couldn’t in 2015.
Will they be able to? Only time will tell. But with Pendergast, the defense is in great hands.