Kenechi Udeze was a predatory pass-rushing defensive end for USC, a 2003 All-American who became a first-round NFL draft pick.
When his pro career ended, Udeze longed to teach a new generation of players the skills he used for the Trojans and the Minnesota Vikings.
USC Coach Clay Helton is giving Udeze that opportunity as USC prepares for the Holiday Bowl against Wisconsin.
Helton’s firing of four assistant coaches after the Pac-12 championship game opened the door for Udeze, who was elevated from assistant strength coach and put in charge of the defensive line for the bowl game.
Udeze jumped at the chance.
“I’ve always prided myself on preparation,” he said.
Udeze, 32, is one of several young coaches auditioning for roles on Helton’s USC staff or elsewhere. Helton last week promoted receivers coach Tee Martin to offensive coordinator, but Helton will call plays in the Holiday Bowl against Wisconsin.
Peter Sirmon, USC’s linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator the last two seasons, is serving as defensive coordinator for the Holiday Bowl.
Defensive administrative assistant Ricky Brown, a former NFL linebacker, is handling linebackers. Graduate assistants Drew Pearson and Patrick Henderson are coaching defensive backs. Graduate assistant Mike Goff, a 12-year NFL veteran, is overseeing the offensive line. Administrative assistant Lenny Vandermade, who was coaching tight ends, is also now assisting with offensive tackles. And volunteer assistant Mike Tuiasosopo is helping Udeze with the defensive line.
“There’s kind of a fresh energy out here right now,” Helton said.
Helton noted he was evaluating “everybody,” including current staff members and coaches in other college programs and on NFL staffs. He said Wednesday that he would have the majority of his new staff in place by mid-January.
“There may be one, two positions left but the primary focus of the [defensive] coordinator and some key positions will be done,” Helton said.
At 6 feet 3 inches, the fit Udeze looks more like a current player than a coach.
After the Vikings selected him with the 20th pick in the 2004 draft, Udeze played four NFL seasons before he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He sat out the 2008 season while receiving treatment, attempted a brief comeback before the 2009 season and then retired.
Udeze worked as an assistant strength coach at the University of Washington and as a defensive line intern for the Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills.
“You’ve got to learn the individual to get the most out of him,” Udeze said, explaining his philosophy. “I’m not going to ask a guy who has limited ability to go jump over three cars and go make a play.
“It’s about giving everyone the right techniques and fundamentals to be efficient and effective on a down-to-down basis.”
Trojans players have been impressed.
“He’s smart, he’s been there, he knows how to coach talent,” sophomore defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow said. “Coach KU definitely has taken us from the ground and built everything back up.”
Said Helton: “He’s a hands-on guy the kids really trust. To see him out here with the technique and fundamentals he brings to the table, he’s invaluable.”
Brown, 31, played at Boston College before a seven-year pro career with the Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Ravens. He worked under former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and Sirmon the last two seasons, assisting with linebackers.
“The biggest thing I want the players to understand is that football is about taking care of business, winning and having fun doing it,” he said.
Pearson, 30, is a former cornerback at Utah State, and Henderson, 28, is a former cornerback and special teams player at Oregon State. Both have been active during practices while taking direction from Sirmon, who is filling the role held previously by Wilcox.
“Just like a player, sometimes you get thrust into roles that maybe aren’t timely but they’re great opportunities,” Sirmon said. “And when you get them you need to make the most of them and show that you’re prepared and you have the aptitude to do it.”
Goff, 39, played at Iowa before a long NFL career with the Cincinnati Bengals, San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs.
He said he benefited from working under former USC offensive line coach Bob Connelly and that he would call on his Big Ten Conference experience to prepare the line for Wisconsin.
“The opportunity is amazing,” Goff said, “so I’m thankful to Coach Helton for trusting me, and I’m going to use this opportunity to teach these young men as much as I can.”