As a captain on the USC defense, safety Chris Hawkins has probably spent more time talking with defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast than any of his teammates.
Yet for all the advice Pendergast has given Hawkins, the coach never once mentioned his own playing career.
That’s because he didn’t have one.
“He’s not a football player,” Hawkins said.
Pendergast is a rarity on a USC staff that includes four former NFL players and three others who played major college football. It may also be one reason why he has been able to put together a successful coaching career that has included 16 seasons in the NFL and six in the Pac-12 Conference, the last two in his third stint at USC.
“Some guys that don’t play football see the game completely differently,” said junior linebacker Cameron Smith, who leads the Trojans with 102 tackles. “His ability to read an offense and know what they want to do, his scheme is something that I’ve never even pondered.
“My mind doesn’t reach sometimes where his mind is at. His mind works differently.”
Pendergast’s play-calling will get its biggest test of the season in Friday’s Cotton Bowl game, when he’ll have to find a way to contain an Ohio State offense that has averaged more than 42 points and 523 yards a game.
“Hopefully it’s the right call,” Hawkins said. “Coach Clancy’s one of most aggressive coordinators in the country. And we like playing that way.”
It’s an aggression that paid off with 43 sacks, the most in the nation, and 16 interceptions. It matters little to the players, then, that their 50-year-old defensive coordinator hasn’t strapped on a helmet since high school.
“I wasn’t talented enough to play,” said Pendergast, who began coaching while in college at Arizona.
What matters more to the players is that in the three decades since he last made a tackle their defensive coordinator spent much of his time working in the NFL, where they’d all like to go next.
“He’s always been brutally honest with all of us, letting us know what our future can hold,” Hawkins said. “I want to get to the next level. He’s been a coach at the next level for so long. So I listen to everything.”
Added linebacker Uchenna Nwosu: “He’s seen a lot of things that we haven’t seen. At the beginning, he was a little intimidating. He’s coming from the NFL, nobody really knew him. But over time [we] started to buy into it, buy into his scheme.”
That initial uncertainty might be why Pendergast got off to a poor start when he rejoined the Trojans last season as part of coach Clay Helton’s staff. Alabama rolled to a 52-6 win over the Trojans in the 2016 season opener.
“I just want to forget that whole game,” Nwosu said.
A better memory is how strong USC finished that season, running off nine consecutive victories, including a defeat of No. 5 Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
Entering the Cotton Bowl, Ohio State also is ranked fifth, and the similarities don’t stop there. Pendergast said the Buckeyes’ potent offense reminds him of last season’s Penn State team.
In the Rose Bowl, USC survived four touchdown passes by Penn State’s Trace McSorley, who also ran for a score. In the Cotton Bowl, the Trojans will face J.T. Barrett, a dual-threat quarterback who passed for 35 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards this season and ran for 732 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Pendergast’s game plan is to pressure and contain Barrett, who will have at least one Trojans defender assigned to shadow him on every play.
“ “He’s what makes them go,” Hawkins said of Barrett. “Him as a runner is something that we have to key on. And with the flick of his wrist he can put the ball in the air.
“You have to be technically sound in this defense. It’s playing that game with him, making him think you’re doing something and then doing something else on the snap.”
Few coordinators are better than Pendergast at fooling offenses and pressuring quarterbacks. So who cares that he never played a down of college football?
“Everybody has a different way to get to their profession,” Pendergast said. “I’ve had an opportunity to be around some really good coaches. I kind of pride myself on being a good teacher and a good communicator.