USC Football: Will Clancy Pendergast rotate more on defense in 2018?

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

More rotation could be on the cards for USC Football’s defense in 2018, but Clancy Pendergast’s philosophy on substitutions hasn’t changed.

USC Football defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast hasn’t been a fan of substitutions since his return to the Trojans in 2016, but could that change in Year 3 with better depth than ever?

Head coach Clay Helton raised that possibility during the first week of USC’s Spring Camp last week.

“That’s one of the things that I’ve addressed with our coaches,” Helton said, “[With] our strength in numbers, let’s be a fresh football team.”

Strength in numbers will have to be a team strength for the Trojans this season. As Helton has pointed out on multiple occasions, the Trojans don’t have a bona fide superstar like Sam Darnold to fall back on. What they do have is a group of players going into a third year with a consistent system.

“The numbers are now probably the best that they’ve been.”

USC’s defensive coaching staff under Pendergast has remained unchanged since it was put together in two years ago. A string of consecutive Top 10 recruiting classes has ensured those coaches have a talented pool of hand-picked and familiar players to work with.

“I think the numbers are now probably the best that they’ve been since we’ve been here in terms of having competition at each position,” Pendergast said. “That’s the exciting part of being out here in spring ball.”

But does that mean USC will actually rotate more? The answer is probably, but not substantially so.

Last year during Fall Camp, Pendergast explained his rotation philosophy in simple terms: “I like our starters. That’s why they’re starters.”

So that’s how it played out in 2017. Starters played as much as they were able, because they were trusted to be on the field and because continuity builds chemistry. There was some rotation on the defensive line, in part due to injury. Outside linebacker also saw increased rotation as the season went on, again partially because of injuries. At safety, Pendergast used Matt Lopes to spell Marvell Tell and Chris Hawkins, but that was about it.

“We’re going to play the best guys that give us the best chance to win,” Pendergast insisted. “I don’t think there were many games we felt like we were really tired.”

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For 2018, that means the philosophy won’t be changing too drastically, but there should be more bodies to give USC some flexibility at particular positions.

Pendergast appears far more willing to substitute based on tactical need rather than for rest.

The inside linebackers aren’t likely to switch in and out very often, but the return of Marlon Tuipulotu, the rise of Jay Tufele and the arrival of Caleb Tremblay gives USC a much more substantial two-deep with a variety of skill sets to deploy against different looks in the trenches.

It should be easy to imagine another three or four-man rotation at safety taking shape with Marvell Tell, Ykili Ross, Bubba Bolden and Isaiah Pola-Mao capable of seeing the field.

The area which will benefit most from some extra depth is cornerback. The Trojans struggled giving up big plays last year, but there was little USC could do with personnel when they only had three corners suit up for most games. This year, Iman Marshall, Jack Jones and Isaiah Langley will be backed by Jonathan Lockett, Greg Johnson, Je’Quari Godfrey, spring enrollee Chase Williams and fall entrants Olaijah Griffin and Isaac Taylor-Stuart.

“Now we’ve got a little more depth with some guys who can come in and challenge,” Pendergast said, noting those last two figures as potential early contributors.

The thing you can count on with Pendergast is every player who takes the field is doing so because they’ve gained a certain level of trust with the coaching staff. No one plays for the heck of it.

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The pool of players with the potential to earn that seal of approval is much bigger in 2018 than it’s ever been. But they still do have to earn it.