In 2013, USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast led the Trojans defense to their best season in recent history. They ranked #1 in the Pac-12, and #13 nationally. However, when Steve Sarkesian took over as head coach in 2014, he elected not to retain Pendergast, and instead hired Justin Wilcox - Sarkesian's defensive coordinator at the University of Washington. The decision proved to be a poor one, in the two years since Pendergast left, the defense regressed - ranking 78th in 2014 and 65th in 2015.
With Pendergast's return in 2016, the Trojans are hoping for a defensive resurgence. Turning around a defense in just one year has been Pendergast's forte, having successfully done so at every level.
In 2004, during his first season with the Arizona Cardinals, he transformed the #26 ranked team defense to #12. He held this position for the following six years and contributed to Arizona's Super Bowl run in 2008, where his defense held opposing offenses to less than 300-yards in total offense in three-of-four playoff games. In 2010, Pendergast worked his magic once again; taking over Cal and turning around the fourth worst Pac-12 defense into the best defense in the conference, two years in a row. He also famously held Chip Kelly's high powered Oregon offense, which averaged 47 points a game to just 15 points in 2010. And lastly, came Pendergast's single year in Southern California, where he turned around USC's defense, ranked 7th in the Pac-12 in 2012 to 1st in 2013.
The blueprint behind Pendergast's immediate success is the 5-2 defense. An aggressive, pressure focused defense that's simple to pick up and easy to adjust. To truly understand how Clancy Pendergast's 5-2 defense works, it's first necessary to understand certain aspects of defensive terminology, and the two most commonly used existing defensive schemes.
First, lets look at the nomenclature of the run gaps. The gaps between each offensive lineman all need to be accounted for on any given play. Each of these gaps has a letter assigned to it from A-to-D. The gap to either side of the center is known as the A gap; to either side of the guard, the B gap, and so on.
The second important piece of terminology to understand when analyzing a defensive front is their alignment, which is otherwise known as the player's technique. Technique is a fancy way of describing where a defensive linemen lines up in relation to the offensive linemen across from them. For example, if a player is lined up on the outside shoulder of the offensive guard, he is in a 3-technique alignment, whereas if he lines up directly across from the guard he will be in a 2-technique.
THE ‘3-4' DEFENSE
The base 3-4 defense, which was commonly adopted during the 1970s, features three defensive linemen and four linebackers. The defensive line is anchored by a big, space eating nose tackle that plays directly across from the center in a 0 technique. The two other defensive linemen, the defensive ends, line up in a 5 technique on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackles.
The primary job of the defensive linemen in the base 3-4 is not to penetrate into the backfield, but to read and react to the running game and clog up the middle. The reason they are not asked to enter the backfield is because the 3-4 is — aside from a few exceptions — a two-gap defense, which means each of the three players along the defensive line, are responsible for two gaps (see above for gap breakdowns). The nose tackle has to control both ‘A' gaps; to either side of the center, and the defensive ends have to control the ‘B' and ‘C' gaps; to either side of the tackle on their respective side. They do this by engaging with the offensive linemen on the snap of the ball, reading the play in the backfield and then reacting to it. The two inside linebackers - Mike and Jack — are then left to follow the flow of the play and clean up in the ‘A' and ‘B' gaps, while the two-outside linebackers are responsible for the ‘D' gaps, and contain/cutback on the edge. If this type of defense sounds familiar, it is because this is the defensive front that the Trojans ran for the past two years under Justin Wilcox. His defense had slightly hybrid tendencies, due to Su'a Cravens' versatility, and the use of a constant rush end at outside linebacker, but for the most part it was a two-gap 3-4 defense.
THE ‘4-3' DEFENSE
The 4-3 defense is the older of the two defensive styles, having been around for decades. It features four defensive linemen and three linebackers - starting to notice a trend here? There are two basic variations of the 4-3, the 4-3 ‘Under' and the 4-3 ‘Over'. For the sake of this exercise - breaking down the Trojans defense — we'll concentrate on the 4-3 ‘Under'. In this defense, the nose tackle will play in a 1 technique across from the center — the inside shoulder to the strong-side as defined by the strength of the offense, generally the inclusion of a tight end unless otherwise pre-determined during the week's preparation. The defensive tackle aligns in a 3-technique to the weak side of the offense, the strong-side defensive end aligns in a 7-technique — outside shoulder of the tight end — and the weak side defensive end aligns in either a 5, 7 or 9 technique depending on the defensive game-plan. The two inside linebackers line up across from the uncovered offensive guards — commonly known as the bubbles — and the strong side outside linebacker plays on the line of scrimmage towards the offenses strength.
Unlike the 3-4's two-gap system, the 4-3 is inherently more aggressive due to the fact that it is a one-gap system. This means that each of the players in the defensive front seven are responsible for only one gap instead of two. As they are only responsible for a single gap, they don't have to worry about deciphering and subsequently reacting to the play, instead they can just aggressively attack their gap, and attempt to penetrate the line of scrimmage. Simply put, if it's a run play through their gap, they will meet the runner in the lane, whereas if it's a pass play, they can simply continue on their path and attempt to get to the quarterback.
WHAT IS THE 5-2 DEFENSE?
This brings us on to the 5-2, which is the new Trojans defensive coordinator's base defense. Based on how the 3-4 and 4-3 are defined (by the number of defensive linemen and linebackers) you'd assume that Pendergast's 5-2 lines up with five defensive linemen and two linebackers. Not exactly. Pendergast's defense features just three down lineman, and four "linebackers" - the quotations will make sense eventually.
But, I can hear you shouting, "that looks exactly like the 3-4 that you just described above! Why is this defense called a 5-2 instead of a 3-4?" The answer lies not in how the defense looks visually, but more in the personnel it uses and what it requires of the players.
Visually, the 5-2 looks almost exactly like the 3-4. It has three defensive linemen, and four linebackers, with two of those linebackers lined up on the line of scrimmage. It even features a nose tackle in a 1 technique tilted towards the offence's strength. However, while visually the 5-2 does look like the 3-4, based on the personnel asked to play in the 5-2, it is really much closer to the 4-3 ‘Under'. The 5-2 simply just asks the weak side defensive end to stand up at the line of scrimmage instead of going into a three-point stance. The "outside linebackers" - there's those pesky quotations again - are not linebackers at all in Clancy Pendergast's defense, they are defensive ends that are simply stood upright at the line of scrimmage. Look back to 2013 - Pendergast's last stint with USC - the outside linebackers were J.R. Tavai (6ft 2", 250lbs), Morgan Breslin (6ft 2" 250lbs) and Devon Kennard (6ft 3" 260lbs), all former defensive ends. Essentially, the main purpose of the outside linebackers in the 5-2 is to rush the passer, they are rarely asked to drop into coverage and do not need to be quite as athletically gifted as their 3-4 counter parts.
Here are some visuals of the above diagram on paper taken from the Trojans game against Notre Dame in 2013:
You'll notice in the above image that Notre Dame have two tight end's to the right of their formation, therefore USC have to account for an extra gap. This is covered by the strong safety, who has walked down into the box.
Here is a second image from the same game:
Image Credits: Draftbreakdown.com
Again, in the above image Notre Dame have two tight ends in the game, so again USC must account for the extra gap, once again a safety has come into the box to cover that gap.
Lastly, here's a look at the 2016 version of the defense in the spring game — the angle isn't great:
You'll notice here that much like Notre Dame above, the Trojans offense has two tight ends on the left hand side of their formation. Therefore, the cornerback, Iman Marshall, who does not have anyone on his side of the field due to the twin receivers on the right, is walking down to contain.
THE NICKEL DEFENSE
All that being said, while the 5-2 will be the Trojans base defense in 2016, teams will generally spend just as much time in their sub-packages, especially in the Pac-12, which loves to spread the ball around. For the Trojans, they will be in their base 5-2 defense, as outlined above, when the offense has less than three receivers on the field. However, for the most part, once the offense attempts to spread the defense out with multiple receiver packages they will move into their nickel sub-package, which in the Trojans case is the 2-4-5 defense (or 4-2-5 depending on whether or not you want to class the two defensive ends as linebackers or defensive ends, for the sake of visual clarity, we'll go with 2-4-5).
Moving from the 5-2 into the 2-4-5 is pretty simple. The defense will take out the nose tackle from the defensive line and add in a nickel cornerback. The Trojans are now still rushing four players, the two defensive linemen and the two outside linebackers, but they now have a total of five defensive backs in coverage to assist with the extra receiver(s). This is the defense you can expect to see the Trojans in for the majority of their conference games, apart from Stanford. When they face Alabama, Notre Dame and Stanford, USC will likely be in their base 5-2 for the most part due to the pro-style aspects of their offenses.
HOW DO THE 2016 TROJANS FIT?
As previously mentioned, the Trojans played in 3-4 two-gap system for the past two years, which also featured a rush end at outside linebacker. Therefore, the transition into Pendergast's 5-2, shouldn't be too much of a stretch. Here's how the current Trojans look at each position:
Predator (Weak Outside Linebacker)
Justin Wilcox's 3-4 also operated with a player in the mold of the predator position in the 5-2. Consequently, the Trojans already have several players prepped to play the position. Scott Felix was last year's starter, and would've fit perfectly were he not suspended. However, his suspension has opened the door for sophomore Porter Gustin, who has looked solid at the position throughout spring practice. Redshirt senior Jabari Ruffin, who also played in the rush end position last year, should also see some snaps.
Strong Side Linebacker
Junior Uchenna Nwosu has been a pleasant surprise during spring practice. He consistently made plays and appears to have taken control of the starting strong side linebacker spot. However, sophomore Osa Masina posses the ideal size for the position at 6ft 4", 245lbs and is likely going to be given plenty of opportunity to prove himself.
The biggest issue with the Trojans fit into the 5-2 - or any conceivable defensive scheme for that matter - is their lack of depth along the defensive line. They have the pieces in place for a solid starting unit, but behind that they are severely lacking. Their lack of depth will certainly hurt them as the season bores on, especially as they play against Alabama and Stanford, two powerful running teams in the first few weeks.
At nose tackle, Noah Jefferson and Jacob Daniel have been competing for the starting spot. And while Jefferson seems to have taken hold of the position, he's battled injuries throughout the spring. The sophomore hurt his back during the early spring practices, and then hyper-extended his elbow on the first play of the spring game.
Kenny Bigelow was meant to be the steady veteran presence along the offensive line, and the assumed starter at the weak-side defensive end position. However, he tore his ACL during the spring and opened up a gaping hole along the defensive line. Converted linebacker Malik Dorton has been a pleasant surprise during the spring and has taken the majority of first team snaps. Behind Dorton, the depth is sparse. JuCo transfer Josh Fatu will be expected to contribute right away when he arrives in the fall.
Leonard Williams excelled as the 3-technique defensive tackle in 2013 - 73 total tackles, 12.5 tackles for a loss and 5 sacks. Rasheem Green has been very impressive in the same position throughout spring. He stood out on the defensive line during the spring game, routinely finding his way into the backfield, and has the ability to be a dominant force for the Trojans defense in 2016.
Cameron Smith burst onto the scene last year at middle linebacker. He finished second on the team with 78 tackles despite missing the final four games with a knee injury (ACL). Smith missed all of spring with the aforementioned knee injury, but he will seamlessly slot into the starting middle linebacker role in the fall. In his stead, Michael Hutchings filled in admirably during the spring, and provides solid depth.
Weak Inside Linebacker
When Clancy Pendergast arrived at USC he declared that everyone was to be given a clean slate. Nobody has benefited more from this than Quinton Powell, who has found his way into the starting weak inside linebacker role. Powell got lost in the fray for the past few seasons under Wilcox, but has been a revelation under Pendergast during the spring. He has been asked to add 15lbs in time for fall camp, which he will need to do in order to absorb the rigors of playing inside, but he has enough sideline-to-sideline speed to feature prominently in 2016.
Two former #1 ranked recruits will hold down the fort at corner for the Trojans - easily the strongest position in terms of talent. Adoree' Jackson wasn't with the team during the spring due to his track responsibilities, however, once he returns in the fall, he will slot in as the Trojans number one corner. Across from him, Iman Marshall will only improve heading into his second season, and true freshman Jack Jones has the ability to contribute right away if needed.
In Pendergast's scheme, the strong safety spends a lot of time playing in the box - oh what Pendergast would give to have Su'a Cravens back for another year. Dion Bailey was converted to linebacker for this role in 2013 and owned the position. Marvell Tell will look to do the same in 2016 after a successful spring camp.
The Trojans essentially practiced all spring without either of their top two choices at free safety. Projected starter Chris Hawkins was out throughout spring due to foot surgery, and Leon McQuay wasn't able to practice with the team every day due to a scheduling conflict. This showed in the spring game, as the defense was beaten deep twice, once on an underthrown pass to Darreus Rodgers and a second time on a deep play action pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Hawkins started all 14 games last season, so he has the experience and should hold onto his place in the lineup in 2016.
So far, Pendergast's 5-2 defense has been a hit among players. The common theme being around the defense's simplicity. "I'm loving the defense so far," Porter Gustin told ESPN. "Really aggressive, just letting us play. Not having to think too much, just going at it." Cameron Smith, who has yet to get onto the field with the defense also shared a similar opinion in a recent interview also with ESPN, "there's not a lot of thinking," Smith said. "I think last year we had some guys who were forced to think. This year, it's just [snaps his fingers] there it is! There it is! That's a plus for us." Conceptually, the defense is much simpler to learn that previous systems. And the switch from the passive read-and-react two-gap system to a one-gap system only increases it's simplicity as it takes away the mental aspect of the game and allows players to simply concentrate on making plays. All this should translate to a much-improved defense in 2016.
Image Credits: Draftbreakdown.com