Earlier this week, before the controversial decision on USC’s football coach and the inevitable fallout still to come for his staff, Clancy Pendergast was outside of Dallas, in the living room of a four-star safety, carrying on with his duties as usual.
The Trojans’ defensive coordinator was one of many assistants out on the recruiting trail the past week, hoping to save a 2020 class ranked 67th in the nation. Part of that difficult job meant dispelling any doubts they may have about Clay Helton’s future, even as their own futures hung in the balance.
Arguably no assistant’s job was in greater jeopardy than Pendergast, whose defense largely underachieved the last two seasons. But amid simmering uncertainty, the staff soldiered on, posing for photos with recruits and flashing “Fight On” signs, hoping to show some semblance of stability at USC.
The most pressing question about the program’s direction was answered Wednesday, as new athletic director Mike Bohn announced that Helton would be retained.
No staff changes were announced with news of Helton’s return. When asked if any changes are expected, Bohn said, “We’re not going to reveal any of those details now.”
He noted, however, that “there is nothing off the table associated with what we’re looking at to improve upon.”
Recent history suggests that changes — and probably sweeping ones — are coming. A year ago, when former athletic director Lynn Swann announced Helton’s return as coach, a purge of assistants followed, including offensive coordinator Tee Martin. Two days after the announcement, only five of Helton’s 10 assistants were still on staff.
It wasn’t the only time Helton tried wholesale changes. In November 2015, six days after his interim tag was removed, Helton fired defensive coordinator — and future California coach — Justin Wilcox, along with three other assistants.
In his place, Helton hired Pendergast. This season, the defense has largely been inconsistent and in the last game gave up a season-high 540 yards to UCLA.
The performance was indicative of other issues that plagued Pendergast defenses. Despite boasting top talent at every level, his defenses at USC have declined in total yards allowed and scoring defense in each of the last four seasons.
Still, last month, when asked about Pendergast’s status, Helton praised USC’s progress on defense. “The future is bright with that squad and a lot of that has to do with Clancy,” Helton said.
He offered similar support last month for longtime assistant John Baxter, whose work on special teams has also been far from the “special” standard Helton set for this season. The kickoff teams especially have struggled since the season’s opening return, when USC was penalized for two players wearing the same jersey number. The kickoff coverage unit has allowed the second-most yards per return in the nation (28.24).
Helton chose to bring back Pendergast and Baxter after last season, despite reasons for concern. This season, it appears much more likely that both top assistants won’t get that benefit of the doubt.
The most pressing staffing decision facing USC, however, likely won’t be its own to make. After a successful first season ushering in the Air Raid offense at USC, offensive coordinator Graham Harrell has emerged as a possible candidate to take the same job at Texas.
Losing Harrell, who was hired inJanuary in the wake of Kliff Kingsbury’s departure to the NFL, would be a devastating blow for a USC offense that found its stride late in the season behind quarterback Kedon Slovis.
Under Harrell’s watch, the unheralded three-star recruit developed into one of the most promising young passers in college football, while a mostly shorthanded USC offense thrived, ranking fifth in the nation in passing offense and 19th in total offense.
Slovis should have a substantial lead for the starting job heading into next season. He’ll have some competition from JT Daniels, who won the job last fall before being injured. Daniels confirmed Thursday that he has no plans to transfer.
But a change in offense could directly alter the competition — as well as both quarterbacks’ college paths.
Max Slovis, Kedon’s father, said Thursday that Harrell, along with the other offensive assistants who call themselves “Team Texas,” have been “the single most influential people in Kedon’s growth.
“[Harrell] was able to identify the parts of Kedon that he felt made him special and help him put those traits and skills on display on game day,” Slovis said in a text message.
The Slovis family is hardly the only group hoping for Harrell’s return. Several parents of USC players expressed to The Times over the last two days that it was crucial for USC to retain Harrell.
Bohn seems to understand that urgency. On Wednesday, he offered unprompted praise of Harrell and his offense, calling it “impressive by any standard.”
With a potentially lucrative offer from Texas looming, how much will USC pay to maintain that standard?
Both Bohn and USC President Carol L. Folt offered some hope, committing publicly this week to provide more resources for Helton and the program. Bohn said there would be a “redoubled commitment to tools, resources and access to things that are going to help them be successful.”
Those additional resources — and the extension offer that’s likely to accompany them — may keep Harrell from heading to his home state. But as the rest of USC’s staff remains in limbo, the uncertainty surrounding the program continues to be a problem on the recruiting trail.
“There’s all this talk about there being staff changes,” said Brandon Huffman, the national recruiting editor at 247Sports. “But who are those staff changes affecting? The uncertainty with less than two weeks until the early signing period starts [on Dec. 18], it’s going to cause some consternation.”