USC’s new defensive coaches eager to embrace the challenge that awaits

North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz speaks to a referee on the sideline.
Former North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz, who won two FCS national titles with the school, will oversee linebackers at USC next season.
(LM Otero / Associated Press)

D’Anton Lynn’s fast makeover of UCLA’s struggling defense started slowly. So slowly, in fact, that when he was installing plays during spring practice last year, players grew frustrated with the snail’s pace. A year later at USC, the Trojans’ first-year defensive coordinator intends to take the same deliberate pace toward what he hopes will be similar results: a reinvigorated defense worthy of a championship.

“We want it to be as simple as possible,” Lynn said Thursday. “We want to make a little look like a lot.”

With an emphasis on player development, USC introduced its four new defensive assistant coaches to reporters Thursday before the Trojans begin spring practices on March 19. All practices will be closed to the public until the spring game at 12 p.m. April 20 at the Coliseum.


The month of practices will be critical for Lynn and first-year assistants Matt Entz (linebackers), Eric Henderson (defensive line) and Doug Belk (secondary) to lay the foundation for a long-term defensive rebuild. With returning assistant Shaun Nua, who will coach the defensive ends, the Trojans are trying to recover from the defensive debacle that resulted in USC losing five of its last six regular season games and reducing Caleb Williams’ Heisman Trophy encore to an afterthought.

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“Obviously, everybody in the world knows what coach [Lincoln] Riley’s been able to do with quarterbacks,” said Belk, who left a job as Houston’s defensive coordinator to join the Trojans. “I think our energy has to be we have to match that.”

After winning two national championships in five years as the head coach at North Dakota State, Entz shocked the Bisons fan base by jumping to USC. The offer even surprised him, Entz admitted. But with aspirations to be an FBS head coach — and getting turned down for such a position during this coaching cycle because of his lack of FBS coaching experience — Entz wanted an opportunity to advance his career while helping USC, which he called one of the “blue bloods” of college football, return to prominence.

“You gotta understand the power of the logo here at USC,” Entz said. “When this program is operating at maximum capacity, it’s good for college football.”

In recent years, the Trojans have been far from the trend-setting program they once were. Riley tried to quickly reinvigorate the team by turning the roster over with huge transfer classes in his first two years. The strategy got the Trojans back into the championship conversation during Riley’s first year.

But after last year’s 8-5 disappointment, Riley wants to start shifting the philosophy toward high school recruiting. He knew that started with first upgrading the coaching staff .

USC head coach Lincoln Riley stands on the sideline during a loss to UCLA at the Coliseum on Nov. 28.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“The only way that model works is … you go get the best developers of talent,” Riley said. “You give the best high school players a reason why they would want to sign to USC and not just sign here, not just come here initially but hopefully for the large majority of those guys, stay here throughout their careers and get on that climb.”

Henderson, whose self-described “aggressive” coaching style came out even in his energetic 30-minute interview, is already a hit with recruits. Although the former Rams defensive line coach has not coached in college since 2016, he has “a great energy, a great confidence” on the recruiting trail, said Lynn, who first worked with Henderson in 2017 while they were both with the Chargers.

Despite getting to coach All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donald, Henderson called the move to USC “a no-brainer.” He’s never one to shy away from a challenge.

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The 41-year-old from New Orleans calls it “D.A.W.G. work.” The acronym, which stands for discipline, attitude, work ethic and grit, will set the foundation for not only the defensive line but the defense’s rebuilt culture.

“Being obsessed with greatness, approach, attacking that with a relentless mind-set, and then having that killer instinct about you,” Henderson said. “I think that’s everything we want to stand for, and I’m extremely excited to see how these guys live that out.”