When news broke Clay Helton found his next defensive coordinator in Todd Orlando, reactions were mixed among those who follow USC football.
Some remember Todd Orlando as the guy who unleashed Ed Oliver on Baker Mayfield in Week 1 of the 2016 season. Houston’s stunning 33-23 upset of the third-ranked Sooners is even more impressive in hindsight, as Oklahoma went on to be the No. 1 offense in college football and won the Sugar Bowl.
Others know the former Wisconsin linebacker as Texas’ defensive coordinator over the past three seasons, which includes both legs of USC’s home and home series with the Longhorns.
And then there are those who view this as a typical, uninspiring USC hire of a defensive coordinator that was just fired after performing worse than Clancy Pendergast last season.
Yet, the intriguing aspect of Orlando is that he encompasses all of those things. He has been the architect of defenses that went toe to toe with the best offenses in the nation, and has also produced back to back below average seasons at another blue blood program.
He first became a defensive coordinator at the Division I level for Randy Edsall at Uconn in 2005. That season he led the Huskies to an SP+ ranking of 24th nationally on defense, and then followed that up with a 25th-ranked defensive ranking in 2007, en route to a shared Big East title.
After excelling again in 2008, Orlando’s defenses lost their effectiveness over his last two seasons in Storrs, ranking 53rd and 42nd nationally in SP+. Orlando then moved on to FIU when Edsall took the head coaching position at Maryland.
The two seasons at FIU under Mario Cristobal —now at Oregon— were bad and worse. He left for Utah State when the staff was fired.
The failure in Miami didn’t break him. In fact, Orlando took a solid defense at Utah State and immediately turned it into a nationally relevant unit. In 2013 the Aggies ranked 18th in defensive SP+. They put their talents on display against Lane Kiffin and USC in a near-upset at the Coliseum, holding the Trojans to just 17 points and 4.27 yards per play.
Orlando’s defense finished 2nd in the nation in defensive rushing SP+, limiting opponents to just 106.7 yards per game on the ground. And while they ranked 28th against the pass, the Aggies intercepted opposing quarterbacks 17 times and recovered 11 fumbles. If Orlando could repeat turnover success like that next season, takeaway-starved Trojan fans would be ecstatic.
The second season in Logan went as well as the first for the Aggie defense. They finished 16th in defensive SP+, including being ranked 6th against the run and 12th against the pass. Yet, the results in 2014 could be inflated by a weak Mountain West schedule.
Utah State began its season on the road and lost 38-7 to Tennessee and was later blown out by Boise State —and Jay Ajayi’s 229 rushing yards— 50-19. Against the best competition they faced, Orlando’s defense didn’t appear to meet the challenge. However, it is important to note Utah State’s offense finished 90th in SP+, offering very little assistance to the defense.
Another positive aspect of Orlando’s time at Utah State were the four defensive players he coached that went on to be drafted, including two defensive backs in 2014 (Nevin Lawson and Maurice Alexander) and two linebackers in 2016 (Kyle Fackrell and Nick Vigil). For a school with just 11 other players drafted in the 2000s, it speaks to Orlando’s ability to develop his guys.
Following 2014, Orlando accepted an opportunity to coach with Tom Herman at Houston.
In the staff’s first year at the school, the Cougars went 13-1 and defeated Florida State in the Peach Bowl to finish the year ranked 8th.
Orlando’s defense was 69th in defensive SP+ but forced an impressive 35 turnovers and ranked 31st in rush defense. With a passing defense at 72nd in SP+, it becomes increasingly clear Orlando’s philosophy revolves around stifling the run while playing for turnovers induced by havoc in the opposing backfield.
The Cougars, led by Ed Oliver, accumulated gaudy individual statistics in 2015, including two linebackers with 19 and 18.5 tackles for a loss respectively and a defensive back with 23 pass breaks ups to go along with his five interceptions. Plus, in the most important category —scoring defense— Houston gave up 20.7 points per game, which put them 20th nationally.
In 2016, Houston made impressive strides in certain areas but had multiple games where they fell apart. Orlando’s defense improved in a multitude of ways, giving up fewer yards per play and fewer red zone touchdowns, while holding opponents to 2.9 yards per carry and 6.8 yards per pass. Both were improvements over 2015, and they finished the year at 27th in defensive SP+.
Yet, from the midpoint of the season on, Houston lost its identity on defense. They allowed 46 points to Navy’s triple-option attack, only to follow that up with 31 points to Tulsa, 38 to SMU, 48 to Memphis, and 34 to San Diego State. For a team that reached as high as #6 in the polls, the decline on defense in the American Athletic Conference was staggering.
However, Herman’s work at Houston was praised nationally, and the up-and-comer parlayed that success into the most coveted job in Texas: head coach of the Texas Longhorns. As a result, Orlando found himself on the way to Austin to lead the defense.
His first year at Texas was a resounding success on the defensive side of the ball. With excellent talent at his disposal, Orlando took at a defense that ranked 50th in the nation in SP+ in 2016 and propelled it up the leaderboards to the 14th spot.
The Longhorns gave up touchdowns on less than 50 percent of their red zone trips, allowed third down conversions just 27.14 percent of the time (No. 3 best in FBS), allowed only three yards per rush, and held opponents to 21.3 points per game.
After giving up 51 points to Maryland in the season opener, Texas allowed more than 30 just one other time in 2017 —including only 27 to Sam Darnold in double overtime— despite receiving lackluster support from an offense led by freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger.
On defense, Malik Jefferson, who drafted by the Bengals in the third round later that year, was particularly dynamic for the Longhorns, making 110 tackles, 10 for a loss and a team-high four sacks.
Unfortunately, Orlando’s defense declined over the next two seasons, as the Longhorns’ scoring defense jumped from 21.3, to 25.9, to 27.5 in 2018 and 2019.
The 2018 defense allowed a ghastly 44.29 percent 3rd down conversion rate, ranked 109th nationally, while their SP+ rushing defense slipped to 38th— Orlando’s lowest ranking since he was at FIU in 2012.
Texas had multiple triumphs in 2018, including embarrassing USC in Austin, defeating Oklahoma in a shootout, and beating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. But unfortunately, the good times didn’t translate into success in 2019.
The boom or bust defense once again busted, as the Longhorns lost control of the line of scrimmage. Opponents rushed for 4.1 yards per carry and threw for nearly eight yards per pass attempt, despite being sacked 36 times. The 3rd down defense improved to be better than USC’s in 2019, which isn’t saying much, but they couldn’t generate the turnovers a typical Todd Orlando defense requires for success.
Ultimately, Texas went 7-5 with a defense that did little to support the 10th ranked offense in the country —that sound familiar?— and Herman chose to fire Orlando after the season.
On Friday, it became official that Orlando is USC’s new defensive coordinator. He had this message for Trojan fans: “We’re going to be aggressive. We’re going to attack people. I really believe that in today’s game, creating negative yardage plays, attacking the quarterback, turnovers —all those things— go into creating explosive plays on defense.”
Orlando’s 3-3-5 defense will typically rush at least four defenders with one of the linebackers playing an Uchenna Nwosu or Porter Gustin type role on the edge. On 3rd and 4th down, he often brings pressure with tight man coverage to force the quarterback into a quick decision.
Blitzers come from a variety of angles and players on the line of scrimmage often drop into coverage while pressure comes from another launching point. These blitzes are an attempt to confuse opposing offenses into blown protections and turnovers.
Later in his introductory quotes, Orlando declared, “You can’t practice soft and play hard.”
“I’m a true believer in that,” he continued. “We’re not gonna talk about it. We’re gonna do it all the time until we master it.”
It is a far cry from the previous philosophy under Helton at USC, and something to be truly excited about.
If anything, the crucial takeaway from this hire is that Orlando has a proven track record of getting the most out of linebackers, something USC desperately needs. At this point, the Trojans’ secondary is their best group, which bodes well for a defensive coordinator who relies on excellent defensive back play, while attempting to maximize the front seven’s effectiveness.
The pieces are all in place for the Trojans to perform like the 2017 Longhorns on defense, and if that is paired with similar offensive production to last year, USC could be very dangerous in 2020.