The USC Trojans will have a defensive play caller for the 2020 season. It’s been a couple of weeks since the Trojans let go Clancy Pendergast following their performance in the Holiday Bowl. There’s haven't been much on the search for a new defensive coordinator, but whoever Helton brings on staff will have a talented group to work with. As it stands right now, USC will return all but two defensive starters. However, they must improve in a number of areas. The new defensive coordinator must fix a unit that ranked No. 74 in total defense. What are some potential candidates that could be targets for USC’s defensive coordinator search.
Joe Barry: Los Angeles Rams linebackers coach
Berry’s name has floated around for the vacant USC defensive coordinator position. The current Los Angeles Rams assistant coach has experience as a defensive coordinator in the NFL and been around the league as a linebackers coach. Berry is a very familiar name around USC. He started his coaching career with the Trojans as a graduate assistant from 1994-1995. He returned to USC as a member of Lane Kiffin’s staff following a one year stint with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as their linebackers coach. Berry would leave USC to make a return to the NFL as the Chargers linebackers coach.
Berry could be seen as the favorite to land the defensive coordinator job with the Trojans. However with the Rams letting go Wade Phillips, Berry could potentially take that job if interviewed for it.
Kris Richard: Dallas Cowboys Defensive Backs Coach
Another candidate that has drawn attention has been Kris Richard. If Clay Helton wants to go after an NFL coach for their defensive coordinator then this has to be the first name that he target and hard. Like Berry, Richard is a very familiar name around the USC circle. A former cornerback at USC and the NFL, Richard started his coaching career at USC under Pete Carroll. He would then follow Carroll to the Seattle Seahawks where he spent seven years on their staff with two of them as the defensive coordinator for the Seahawks. In 2017 Richard took the Dallas Cowboys defensive backs coaching position.
As it stands Richard is one of the top coaches on the market for defensive coordinator and head coaching opportunities in the NFL. That currently stands in the way of Helton landing the former Trojan. If they can get past that, Richard could help USC in numerous ways. On the field, he’s the right guy to completely turn around a talented Trojans defense. Richard is also a Southern California native, which potentially help turn around USC’s luck in the recruiting battle. Landing him might require Helton to give up some power with how practices are ran and a change in culture, which at this point is needed.
Charlie Strong: Former USF Head Coach
Getting away from the NFL pool here, Charlie Strong is a name that deserves a look when it comes to the USC defensive coordinator position. Strong has the resume that would make this hire a pretty big one. His pedigree alone will give him the attention from this young Trojans defensive unit. Last season USF defense ranked No. 32 in total defense under Strong. He has also show the ability to develop linebackers, but that would mean the Trojans returning to the traditional 4-3 defense. Looking to get a championship defense? Strong has experience in that field too. Under Urban Myer at Florida, Strong was the defensive coordinator for the Gators during their BCS Championship winning seasons in 2006 and 2008.
While Strong has been unable to hold a head coaching job at Texas and USF, he could do wonders for this USC defense. If anything Helton should give a serious thought about the veteran college coach. Like Richard, Strong could change-up the culture at USC, which again is needed.
Rocky Long: Former San Diego State Head Coach
The long time college coach is now on the market after announcing that he is stepping down as San Diego State head coach to pursue a Power 5 defensive coordinator job. Paging Clay Helton and USC. Long brings years of experience to the job and is another coach who could bring the most out of a talented Trojans unit on that side of the ball. Long has spent time in the Pac-12 as defensive coordinator for Oregon State and UCLA. The Aztecs’ defense has consistently been one of the best in the Mountain West Conference.
There’s a couple of negatives here to hiring Long. One he’s 70 years old and while he’s experienced, USC may opt for a younger candidate. Another is that there’s reports that he could be on his way to Syracuse to join Dino Babers’ staff. The Trojans could potentially target another coach on the San Diego State staff.
Zach Arnett: San Diego State defensive coordinator
Arnett would be an interesting candidate for USC and is probably one of the more under the radar names out there now. During Arnett’s two year tenure as Aztecs defensive coordinator, San Diego State has ranked in the top ten in several defensive categories. Last season they were No. 4 in the nation in points allowed (13.2), No. 2 in rushing yards allowed (72.3), No. 4 in passes intercepted (18), and No. 16 in Red zone defense (.750). All numbers ranked better than USC in 2019.
Arnett runs a 3-3-5 defensive scheme which is similar to what USC was running under Clancy Pendergast the last few seasons. It wouldn’t take much learning for the players and should produce instant results.
At the very least Arnett should get an interview with Helton to join his staff. He would cover two areas as their linebackers coach and defensive coordinator. Not to mention he’ll work very well with defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a and defensive backs coach Greg Burns.
Pete Kwiatkowski: Washington Huskies co-defensive coordinator
Kwiatkowski is another name that comes to mind as a potential candidate. It would give the Trojans someone who’s already in conference and is familiar with the recruiting on the west coast. Kwiatkowski shared the defensive coordinator tag with Jimmy Lake for a couple of seasons and has produced one of the best defensive units in the Pac-12 the last few years.
Luring Kwiatkowski could be a difficult task for Clay Helton. With Jimmy Lake promotion to head coach, it could mean that Kwiatkowski will opt to stay at Washington and run the defense under Lake. However, it’s also worth USC taking a good look at him and kicking the tires to lure him to Los Angeles.
Ryan Nielsen: New Orleans Saints defensive line coach
Right back to the NFL we go. This time it’s to New Orleans where another potential candidate whose name has appeared in the defensive coordinator search. Ryan Nielsen name has surfaced the last couple of days. During his 16 year coaching career, Nielsen has not served as a defensive coordinator at the power 5 level (co-defensive coordinator for Northern Iowa and FCS Central Connecticut). His most recent college stint came at North Carolina State where he served as defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator from 2013-2016 before leaving for the New Orleans Saints.
Nielsen is spend four years at USC as a defensive end (1998-2001) under Paul Hackett. He also got his coaching career started in 2002 at USC. This could be another likely route Clay Helton decides to go with. If the Trojans can’t land Joe Berry then Nielsen could be choice No. 2 or 3 if they can get Richard.