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USC begins purge of football staff as it announces Tee Martin and three other assistants won't return

USC begins purge of football staff as it announces Tee Martin and three other assistants won't return
Tee Martin had been on the USC football coaching staff since 2012. Martin’s offenses in 2016 and 2017 helped USC to 21 wins, a Rose Bowl victory and a Pac-12 championship. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Clay Helton’s off-season revitalization plan for USC football went into motion Tuesday morning. It began with addressing the team of assistant coaches he had put into place around him. By day’s end, only half of Helton’s 10-man staff still kept an office at the McKay Center.

USC announced on its Twitter account that offensive coordinator Tee Martin, defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze and defensive backs coach Ronnie Bradford are no longer on the coaching staff, joining offensive line coach Neil Callaway, who was let go after eight games this season. Quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis is gone too, having taken the offensive coordinator job at Western Kentucky, where Helton’s brother, Tyson, was named head coach Tuesday.

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The coaches who stayed employed at USC — if Helton’s purge is indeed complete — say just as much about where the head coach lays the blame for the program's worst regular season since 2000 as the men who left.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator Johnny Nansen, special teams coach John Baxter, running backs coach Tim Drevno and tight ends coach Keary Colbert remain. USC speedily removed the departed coaches’ names from the school’s website Tuesday.

The writing was on the wall for Martin after Helton took over play-calling duties Oct. 29, two days after the loss to Arizona State. Martin said that week that he would consider remaining on the staff even with a diminished role because he loves being at USC, but Helton decided to move on from Martin entirely.

By firing Martin and keeping Pendergast, Helton reinforced the decision he made a month earlier that pointed a finger at the Trojans’ offensive struggles as a scapegoat.

The numbers show a USC offense under Martin that, at its best in 2017, finished 13th nationally in total offense at 484.1 yards per game. The unit dipped considerably in 2018 after replacing Sam Darnold with freshman JT Daniels at quarterback, finishing 91st in scoring offense (26.1 points a game) and 84th in total offense (382.6).

The USC defense under Pendergast, in contrast, did not dip drastically but became overwhelmingly mediocre. Pendergast’s best unit was the 2016 group that finished 38th in scoring defense (24.2) and 36th in total defense (367.2). The 2018 defense ranked 63rd in scoring defense (27.0) and 59th in total defense (387.7).

USC’s defense was often put in bad positions by the offense and was also hampered by several season-ending injuries, most notably to linebacker Porter Gustin.

Still, Pendergast’s group gave up too many big plays while not creating turnovers to help USC’s offense with field position.

Saturday night after USC’s season-ending 24-17 loss to Notre Dame, Helton said he had a plan for how to advance the program after a 5-7 campaign. Athletic director Lynn Swann referenced that plan Sunday when he announced Helton would be back as head coach for a fourth season. Swann and Helton mentioned that an evaluation of Helton’s staff would be coming.

The moves Tuesday were the first significant staff decisions Helton has made since he was given the permanent head coaching position in 2015. Then, after losing to Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game, he fired defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and three other assistants.

Wilcox is now the head coach at California, which beat USC 15-14, a loss that ultimately kept the Trojans from becoming bowl eligible. It led to an off-season of discontent that started Tuesday when Udeze announced on his Twitter account that he would not be back at USC.

Udeze, an All-America defensive end for USC’s national championship team in 2003, joined the staff in 2015 as the assistant strength and conditioning coach. He was promoted to defensive line coach beginning in 2016.

The same year, Bradford joined the USC staff to coach the defensive backs.

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In 2017, Ellis came to USC as an offensive administrative assistant and was promoted to quarterbacks coach this season.

Martin is the most significant departure. The former Tennessee quarterback joined the USC staff in 2012 under Lane Kiffin as wide receivers coach and worked his way to the role of offensive coordinator by 2016.

Martin’s offenses in 2016 and 2017 helped USC to 21 wins, a Rose Bowl victory and a Pac-12 championship.

Martin and Udeze were known as two of the best recruiters on the Trojans staff. It will be up to Helton and his five assistant coaches to keep the 2019 recruiting class together as Helton looks to build his new staff.

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