During his first news conference of the spring, Clay Helton let it slip that he asked defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to simplify the USC defense. It felt like a revelation.
Most of the offseason had been devoted to finding the right coach to make the same adjustment to the Trojans offense. By keeping Pendergast in place, it appeared that Helton was relatively content with a mediocre defensive season in 2018 that stayed under the radar compared to the offensive implosion that stole the headlines.
Entering spring practice, Helton and new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell had already spelled out what simplification would mean for the offense. But now, suddenly, the focus shifted to the defense. And, when confronted with the notion for the first time, Pendergast was unwilling to indulge the idea any further other than saying that he always evaluates the previous season and works to make the necessary changes and that this season was no different.
How exactly Pendergast had changed USC’s defense, well, he’d let observers figure it out themselves over the next five weeks of spring practice.
During the last two seasons, Pendergast’s defense, which often played with two traditional defensive linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs, has been a bit of an enigma. The talent has appeared to be there to form an elite unit, and the group did not lack for experience either. Yet, USC has struggled, particularly against the run, where the Trojans have given up 4.3 yards per carry in back-to-back years (the last time USC gave up that number was 2010).
The most noticeable change during spring ball has been consistently playing with three down defensive linemen. Where the Trojans were often moving Porter Gustin or Christian Rector to the line as a third standing edge defender, they are now using Rector as a down lineman along with two space eaters like Jay Tufele and Brandon Pili. Sometimes, USC has used a fourth defensive lineman like impressive early enrollee Drake Jackson.
It’s pretty clear what this change was intended to accomplish.
“Always stop the run, that’s our pride right there,” USC inside linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV said. “We’ll give up the pass, but when it comes to the run, nobody can get past us. That’s our biggest emphasis come this spring.”
Similar to what Harrell has done for the offense, Pendergast has given the defense less to think about at every level. New USC defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a said his group’s priority is for each player to know his assignment and not veer from it, especially against the run.
“Coach Clancy really narrowed down the defensive fronts,” Pili said, “and he made it clear what he wants us to do. It’s definitely helping us out as a defensive line. It’s muchsimpler, and we can play faster and get through blocks faster.”
Kauha’aha’a can watch USC’s inside linebackers, Gaoteote and John Houston, and know everything about how the linemen are doing.
“The whole deal for us as a front this year is being gap sound, not making things cloudy for the linebackers in the back,” Kauha’aha’a said. “I don’t want to hear Coach Clancy say, ‘Hey, you got to make these guys right.’ We’ve got to stay in our gaps, and that’s our job.”
Helton trusted Pendergast to make the proper adjustments to the defense. Helton approves of what he’s seen so far.
“What Clancy is doing, which I really like, is he’s simplified the package,” Helton said, “but he also put us in personnel groupings that can help us in normal down and distance, being a bigger front. But when you see those third downs, what happens, you put the fast guys on the edge. They’re really doing a nice job personnelwise of putting the right people in the right situations on the right down and distance.”