USC Football’s defense expecting big leap from Year 2 to Year 3

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

USC Football is looking for a big boost from Year 2 to Year 3 under consistent coordinators. That’s especially true on a now veteran-laden defense.

Expectations may have followed USC Football into the 2017 season ahead of schedule. It’s actually the third year under any coaching staff which is likely to reveal the true progress, or lack thereof, for a program.

This spring, the Trojans are looking for a big step up from Year 2 to Year 3 and there are already signs of that being the case.

“It’s just evident how fast the kids are playing, how well they’re communicating and it doesn’t feel like an opening of spring,” head coach Clay Helton said. “It feels like you’ve been in a system and kids are flowing and playing really fast.”

Helton credits the smooth transition to consistency along the coaching staff, with three returning coordinators entering their third year on the job: John Baxter on special teams, Tee Martin on offense and Clancy Pendergast on defense.

No doubt the offense has the toughest task ahead of them, needing to replace the leading passer, receiver and rusher all in one fell swoop. That process began last week with quarterbacks Matt Fink and Jack Sears opening the battle for a starting job while other contests rage across the lineup.

“It feels like you’ve been in a system and kids are flowing and playing really fast.”

The defense, on the other hand, is in much better shape than anyone would have imagined last year when it was stocked with a bevy of rising juniors who were expected to depart for the NFL.

For some, like Porter Gustin and Iman Marshall, things didn’t go as planned in their junior season. For others, like Cameron Smith and Marvell Tell, they simply opted to return for a final go after solid performances in 2017.

Their returns means USC’s defense is not in a rebuilding mode like it was supposed to be. Instead, with just four starters lost from last year’s squad, the defense is now the foundation for a team that could actually take a significant step forward in 2018.

To be certain, there are gaps to fill in the lineup and newcomers will play a major role in how high this defense can rise. But Pendergast singles out Smith and Tell as players in the spine of the defense who will be the key to USC progressing from good to great.

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Smith may be entering his fourth year as a starter at USC, but it’s his third year in Pendergast’s system and only second as the quarterback of the defense at middle linebacker. The 2017 season was still a learning experience for him at MIKE.

It’s a similar story for Tell, who has been active on defense since his arrival in 2015, but only locked down a starring role in Pendergast’s defense in 2017—he was the third safety in the rotation in 2016.

“There’s two examples right down the middle of the defense of guys that got really good experience that I think you’ll see make even a bigger jump between Year 2 and Year 3,” Pendergast said.

Then there’s someone like John Houston, whose 2017 was spent adjusting to his starting place at weakside linebacker.

“As the season went on you could see him gain confidence,” Pendergast said. “He went from tiptoeing around to really inserting himself. Those are things you’d like to see right off the bat, but it takes actually getting out there and doing it and having confidence in yourself to feel good about it. He’s a guy I saw make a lot of progress as the season went on.”

Houston is now at the weight USC wants him to be, a solid 225 pounds as opposed to a slim 210, and his most recent performance was his brightest.

“He played lights out in the Cotton Bowl. He was all over the place getting off blocks making plays, making plays in the passing game,” Pendergast said.

USC’s whole defense played exceptionally in the Cotton Bowl, and they’ve carried that form into Spring Camp.

With a first team lineup currently averaging 11 career starts each, a solid core of veteran Trojans should see that form continue on into the regular season.

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“It’s fun to see those guys take their game to the next level, which helps elevate the guys underneath them,” said Pendergast.