USC Football: Clancy Pendergast explains his defensive rotation

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is focused on playing the best 11 he can find. Rotation may increase in 2017, but it is not essential.

USC Football’s defense under Clancy Pendergast has excelled at many things. The Trojans have been aggressive. They’ve gotten to the quarterback. They’ve forced turnovers. They’ve made big plays in big moments.

The one thing Pendergast’s defense has never been good at? Rotation. Ask the defensive coordinator and he’d say that isn’t a bad thing. It’s by design.

“We’re going to play the best 11 guys,” Pendergast said after USC’s fourth day of fall camp.

The best 11 may change depending on the opponent. Against the likes of Stanford, Texas and Notre Dame, that group will likely involve an extra man in the trenches. Against the likes of Washington State, Arizona and ASU, an extra defensive back may be key.

“I like our starters. That’s why they’re starters.”

Either way, Pendergast believes in finding a core group of players to lean on. All he needs are the 11 defenders who have done enough to earn starting jobs, anything after that is gravy.

“I like our starters. That’s why they’re starters,” he said.

There may be questions about fatigue, but the coach downplays that aspect.

“Really, I didn’t see them wear down that much in any particular game, especially as the season went on,” said Pendergast.

It’s a trust issue. He won’t play someone who isn’t ready, just for the sake of rotation.

But it’s not just about who he can trust to do the job. It’s about how fully each Trojan can trust the man next to them to do the job.

“It’s a lot different, to me, when you can be out on the field and look the same guy in the eye and you make a call and you know, I got you,” Pendergast said. “You don’t have to say anything a lot of times, they just look at each other and they know what each other is thinking.

“When you rotate people in you don’t have that same continuity. So until we can develop more guys to play more, then we’ll stick with our philosophy.”

That philosophy was a success in 2013. The Trojans notably used only 12 defenders in the field-rushing upset of Stanford.

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After some growing pains, Pendergast managed to find similar success in 2016, counting on defensive linemen Rasheem Green and Stevie Tu’ikolovatu to carry the load up front essentially on their own. The only hint of rotation came at safety, where Marvell Tell, Leon McQuay III and Chris Hawkins all contributed.

And he’s approaching this season the same way.

Still, 2017 could indeed be different. That ‘best 11’ mindset could be expanded to include a greater number of worthy contributors as more and more Trojans come into their own in Year 2 with the system.

“If there’s more guys that can fit into that role where we can play 15, 16 guys and feel good about it, then we will,” Pendergast said. “But it’s too early to be able to tell that right now.”

It may be early, but there are some contenders to expand the magic number from 11.

USC’s outside linebacker positions are settled with returning starters Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu, but back ups Oluwole Betiku and Connor Murphy appear on the cusp of some well-earned playing time in 2017.

READ MORE: Why USC’s Defense Will Improve in Year 2 Under Clancy Pendergast

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“Those are two guys that have probably made the most of a jump from spring ball to now,” Pendergast said, crediting each with improving their flexibility and comfort level in the scheme.

Other young prospects could also be coming down the line with true freshman inside linebacker Levi Jones and fellow first year safeties Bubba Bolden and Isaiah Pola-Mao on the shortlist of players who could warrant early playing time.

The fact still remains, every defender that receives meaningful playing time in 2017, as part of a best 11, 12, 13 or beyond, will not be thrown in lightly.

For Pendergast and USC, the concept of rotation is non-essential.