One of the last remaining coaches from the Lane Kiffin/Ed Orgeron staff, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast stands on the outside looking in under new head coach Steve Sarkisian. It began with a somewhat simple but much needed transformation away from the 4-3 Cover Two scheme under Monte Kiffin towards a more aggressive and line-centric 5-2 scheme that hoped to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.
Pendergast took over a defense that gave up 394 yards per game in 2012, the second highest total in school history, and over 24 points per game, the fourth highest mark. This season under Pendergast, the Trojans led the conference in passing defense and red zone defense and ranked second in total defense, run defense and scoring defense.
What's next for an undermanned unit that took some major steps this past season? For starters, Sarkisian brought along coach Keith Heyward to solidify the Trojans secondary that did struggle from time to time. It also helps that the 37-year-old Justin Wilcox, who has been reported to be the next defensive coordinator, has put together an impressive resume. Wilcox first became a defensive coordinator at Boise State in 2006, where his Broncos squad led the WAC in defense, slowing down plenty of read-option attacks from 2006-2009.
What does that mean for this defense now that Pendergast days are numbered? It certainly means Sarkisian is sticking to his word when he said he would prefer playing more 3-4 defense moving forward. It also means the future of players like George Uko and Hayes Pullard should be followed with a keen eye before this spring.
These two players, who both served as anchors for the linebacking corp and defensive line, deeply benefitted from the transition to the 5-2 scheme. Especially the case for captain Hayes Pullard, who finished the season as the team's leading tackler and also showcased improved coverage skills over the middle. All of which makes you wonder about the duo's respective futures on campus, as both are weighing draft stocks on whether to declare or play out their senior seasons.
This can be thanks in large part to what Pendergast was able to accomplish this past season. His aggressive defense created plenty of opportunities for line stunts and penetration into the backfield, fueling the Trojans much-improved defense this season that won the battle in the trenches nearly every week of the season.
Sarkisian must get all his players to believe in something similar to "one team, one heartbeat," at least in terms of setting the tempo and regaining an edge on the defensive side of the ball. A large part of that transformation can be thanked to the bricks laid by star-studded Trojans who took their game to new heights this past season under Pendergast.
Lott IMPACT Trophy finalist Devon Kennard came on strong after missing all of 2012. He led the team with nine sacks plus Leonard Williams was named an ESPN First-Team All-American. Pendergast took a safety in Josh Shaw and made him a valuable corner and allowed Dion Bailey to flourish in a safety/slot corner role more suited to his size and quickness. Plus, J.R. Tavai moved from an interior D-lineman to a stand-up outside linebacker filling Morgan Breslin's position rather well after Breslin was lost for the season.
While many of these moves can be accredited to Pendergast playing to the strengths of his current players on the roster, Sarkisian and Wilcox will need to follow suit and find the best formations and schemes to allow the entire roster to improve next season.
Despite some worrisome games against Arizona State and UCLA, the Trojans looked rather dominant against the rest of their schedule. Those games certainly leave some major questions about USC's ability to slow down the dual-threat quarterbacks, but when facing big-time passing offenses from Fresno State and Oregon State, the Trojans came to play from the very start and showcased how controlling the line of scrimmage with physical play can translate moving forward.
The Trojans got the most from an injury-plagued defense that lost starters Lamar Dawson, Anthony Brown and Breslin for large portions of the season. Next season, young playmakers like Quinton Powell, Michael Hutchings and Kenny Bigelow will enter the fold along with proven backend players Su'a Cravens and Leon McQuay roaming the secondary. The Trojans will finally have the athletes for Wilcox to utilize against faster offenses that he never really had during prior stints.
The combination of relentless physicality from Pendergast along with the read-option principles that will be implemented from Wilcox's defensive schemes should give USC athletes the edge against all different kinds of attacks next season.