Not the dark place the Trojans were left in last December, after their defense was dismantled by Iowa in the Holiday Bowl and their coordinator was fired a day later. But rather a figurative dark place, where players are pushed past their mental and physical brink, where adversity is earned and intestinal fortitude is forged, and where USC’s new, hard-nosed defensive coordinator claims “all the championships are at.”
As spring practice opens next week and a new staff of assistants takes the reins on defense, Orlando plans to spend most of the session trying to pilot the Trojans to that place, where toughness is an inextricable tenet again.
“You have to go [to that dark place] and see what it’s all about,” Orlando said Tuesday. “If you’re never in those places that are really, really tough, you’re never going to know how to go through them. We’re going to go through them. That’s not lip service. It’s not. That’s the thing.”
That was the overarching message, metaphorical and otherwise, as the new members of USC’s defensive staff spoke publicly for the first time Tuesday since their hirings this past offseason. None held back in their declarations for how they plan to change the program.
Orlando used an array of fighting metaphors to describe the mind-set he hopes to instill. Defensive line coach Vic So’oto talked about getting back to football’s violent, physical roots up front, and cornerbacks coach Donte Williams talked about getting back to USC’s roots on the recruiting trail, where the West was “something [USC] rightfully owns.”
The new assistants spoke of pushing USC’s defense to a place that was no longer natural. And all four said it was coach Clay Helton who convinced them to bring that message and style to USC.
“Clay Helton to his credit was the guy who kind of tipped us over as far as a boss that you can get behind and fight for,” So’oto said. “We’re all kind of cut from the same cloth. We [believe] in playing football a certain way.”
That new brand of defense starts next Tuesday at practice, where Orlando promised USC will be more physical. In talking about plans for spring, he bristled at the notion of non-padded practice — “Saturday, that’s when we play actual American football” — and noted USC would be “right under the [NCAA] marker” in terms of hitting in practice.
“If you want to be a good fighter, you have to get in a fight,” Orlando said. “You know what I’m saying? You have to practice that way.”
USC’s defense didn’t put up much of a fight down the stretch in 2019, when it gave up 84 combined points to UCLA and Iowa to finish the season. Orlando’s final defense at Texas, for that matter, also struggled. The Longhorns yielded 30-plus points in six of their 12 games before he was fired in early December.
But wherever he has gone, Orlando’s multiple scheme has seen some measure of initial success.
At Texas, where he spent the last three seasons, Orlando’s first year saw the Longhorns improve from 87th nationally to 39th in yards allowed and 80th to 24th in points allowed. At Utah State, where he coached from 2013-2014, Orlando’s inaugural defense ranked 12th and seventh, respectively.
Orlando credits those improvements, in large part, to a shift in mentality. The question now, as he takes over a talented Trojans defense, is whether that might be enough to turn the tide at USC.
No NFL for Harrell
Graham Harrell had never really considered coaching in the NFL.
As the son of a Hall of Fame Texas high school coach, Harrell always imagined a future following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. Even a collegiate coaching career came as somewhat of a surprise to the record-setting Texas high school quarterback, whose first season at USC saw the Trojans rank among the top passing teams in the nation.
So when the Philadelphia Eagles called in January and asked him to interview to be their offensive coordinator, a future beyond the college ranks had barely crossed Harrell’s mind. It gave him plenty to think about. But at the end of an offseason in which plenty of other opportunities arose for him, Harrell decided it wasn’t the right time to make that step.
“One day it may be the right time and the right opportunity for me to go do it,” Harrell said. “This just wasn’t it. So it’s exciting, and I do think if you look around and look at a lot of the offenses, they’re moving toward or doing a lot more things similar to what college guys are doing, what we’re doing here. There may be more opportunities, and the time may be right at some point, and it is an exciting opportunity, but it’s not something I ever thought about or thought I had to get to to feel I made it in the coaching world.”
New tight ends coach John David Baker, a close friend of Harrell, said he doesn’t believe an NFL job suits his style.
“The NFL is probably the last thing on his mind,” Baker said. “He’s truly an educator. He enjoys growing people and growing kids.”
Despite the return of Kedon Slovis, last season’s Pac-12 offensive freshman of the year, there will be competition this spring at quarterback, Harrell reiterated. Former starter JT Daniels is expected to be very limited physically as he attempts to return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Harrell explained that USC will also be “very cautious” with Slovis, who injured his elbow in the Holiday Bowl three months ago.
Tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe, who left the team after last spring, has rejoined the roster and will be healthy for this spring. … All but one session of spring practice will be open to the public. The team will hold a spring showcase exhibition at the Coliseum on April 11.