Stats from the past and present show USC Football can expect to make major strides in the second year running Clancy Pendergast’s defense.
In 2013, the sanctions-stricken USC Football defense ranked among the best squads in the country.
Under defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, the Trojans improved from 30th in S&P+ in 2012 to fourth by the end of the 2013 season. That was Year 1.
Pendergast didn’t get a chance at Year 2, when the most marked growth usually occurs for teams under new management. Instead, Steve Sarkisian brought his own DC, Justin Wilcox, along with him when he took control of the program.
Two years later, newly-minted head coach Clay Helton had the foresight to bring Pendergast and his aggressive defense back to Troy and history repeated itself, to a point.
In Year 1 2.0 under Pendergast in 2016, the Trojans went from the 41st-ranked defense in S&P+ to the 20th.
Now, USC will get a taste of what an experienced and drilled Trojan defense under Pendergast will look like in Year 2. There’s reason to be very optimistic.
The advantages of being in Year 2 are many. There is less learning and more perfecting. Familiarity breeds confidence and confidence results in speed.
During spring camp, coaches and players noted the difference familiarity can make.
“Last spring was our first spring as a whole defense, so learning the defense was new for everybody,” senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu said. “Now that I know the defense, it’s my second year in the defense, I feel like I’m more comfortable and I can play a little faster.”
Nwosu isn’t alone.
“It’s just really nice to go into a spring and already know the defense and just being able to go over everything again instead of learning an entirely new defense,” junior linebacker Porter Gustin said.
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The advantages of being in Year 2 are many. There is less learning and more perfecting. Familiarity breeds confidence and confidence results in speed — of thought and thus reaction.
Statistics back those observations up as well.
Pendergast may not have reached Year 2 with USC the first time, but he did have a Year 2 with Cal in 2011.
After improving from 85th in S&P+ defense to 37th in Year 1, the Bears continued to progress, ranking 26th in Year 2 under Pendergast. They also steadily climbed the ladder in FEI defense, another advanced statistical measure which focuses on drive efficiency. Pre-Pendergast, Cal ranked 66th. In Year 1, they rose to 32nd. In Year 2, they peaked at 24th.
Specifically, Pendergast’s Bears saw major improvement in the aggressive aspects of the defense.
Ranking sixth in the Pac-12 at 6.33 tackles for loss per game in 2010, Cal topped the conference with 7.62 tackles for loss in 2011, good for seventh nationally.
USC averaged just 5.46 tackles for loss in 2016, leaving plenty of room for improvement. If Cal’s example under Pendergast is any indication, the Trojans will get it.
It helps that USC returns starters at the two major pass rushing positions on the defense, with Gustin and Nwosu set for breakout campaigns.
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Gustin already led the Trojans with 13 tackles for loss as a sophomore. Nwosu added 7.5. Those numbers are likely to rise in 2017.
The two also stand as the top performers returning in the Pac-12 when it comes to ProFootballFocus’ measure of defensive stops, or tackles which result in a win for the defense.
Should they advance as expected, few opposing offenses will be capable of coping with the bodies the Trojans will throw at them.
Critically, Gustin and Nwosu aren’t the only veteran figures on the defense ready to hit their college football prime.
The Trojans achieved their defensive success in 2016 with a sophomore-heavy lineup — five of the regular 11 starters were second-year players. Those sophomores are now juniors with a wealth of experience under their belts.
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Defensive lineman Rasheem Green, who led USC in sacks, has 12 starts on his resume. Cornerback Iman Marshall, safety Marvell Tell and Gustin have 15 each, while linebacker Cameron Smith can claim 22 even though his freshman season was cut short due to injury.
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USC’s two other returning starters –Nwosu, a senior, and safety Chris Hawkins, a redshirt senior– have 13 and 22 starts to their names respectively.
Having those experienced starters at every level should help the Trojans cope with the loss of a key starter at every level, namely, defensive lineman Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, linebacker Michael Hutchings, cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and safety Leon McQuay III.
Those departures present the biggest hurdle towards USC’s Year 2 defense becoming one of the nation’s elite.
Though experience won’t be on their side in those positions, the Trojans will be able to turn to capable athletes to fill those gaps thanks to top level recruiting.
There remain questions around just how good USC’s 2017 defense can be, but the signs are there pointing towards great things to come.