The third defensive coordinator under Clay Helton faces a tall order
Todd Orlando becomes the USC Trojans' third defensive coordinator under the Clay Helton regime with his hire on Friday. Now the pressing question: What's so different this time around?
That question stems not from the hire of Orlando specifically, who coordinated good-to-great defenses in three seasons at Texas. The 2018 Longhorns were particularly solid, with a resume that included a thorough demolition of USC. In 2017, Orlando's defense gave Texas a shot at upsetting the Trojans in the Coliseum.
Nor does this question arise from the decision to move away from Clancy Pendergast, which was unavoidable after a disappointing few seasons bottomed out in the Holiday Bowl. USC allowed the Hawkeyes to score a season-high 49 points, one more than Iowa dropped on Conference USA program Middle Tennessee.
A handful of plays in USC's 49-24 loss at December's Holiday Bowl, in particular, signaled why a change was necessary.
Iowa twice used misdirection plays in the red zone to badly burn the USC defense en route to six points. Although the Hawkeyes beat the Trojans in other noteworthy ways — at one pivotal stretch, simply overpowering the line at the point of attack on a series of quarterback keepers — the red-zone sweeps especially emphasized USC's defensive regressions and inability to improve upon repeated deficiencies.
"We game-planned a little bit and had seen on film they had trouble defending the reverses and flies and jets [sweep plays]," Iowa offensive lineman Alaric Jackson said.
"A lot of teams had success. BYU, Utah in particular. That's something that the coach does a great job of," quarterback Nate Stanley said. "We were able to exploit those weaknesses as well."
"Being able to use misdirection with the reverse move, then the sweep, being able to motion back and forth, get them unbalanced out of their positions, definitely huge for us in preparation," wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said.
Smith-Marsette individually pummeled USC in a way no player had since Christian McCaffrey in the 2015 Pac-12 Championship Game. As McCaffrey scorched the Trojans for 207 yards rushing and 105 yards receiving, frustrated shouts emanating from the coaches' suite could be heard through the adjacent wall to the press box.
The next day, newly christened head coach Clay Helton relieved defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox of his duties. It marked the end of a contentious marriage, almost from the moment Wilcox called his first game on Steve Sarkisian's staff in 2014.
Critics often cited Wilcox's conservative use of blitz packages. He picked up the aggressiveness the next season with generational talent Leonard Williams no longer on the line, but an uptick in blitzes didn't produce the desired results. USC surrendered 41 points or more four times, including in the Pac-12 Championship loss.
That's just one time fewer than Wisconsin and Cal teams allowed in the four seasons since with Wilcox as defensive coordinator and head coach, respectively. Take away the 2017 campaign, when Wilcox inherited one of the worst defenses in college football his first year at Cal, and he's had three different teams allow 41-plus points half as many times as his tenure at USC.
In fact, defensive prowess has become the defining characteristic of Cal football in Wilcox's tenure.
Pendergast may or may not have a resurgence post-USC, but his tenure began positively enough. Helton brought Pendergast back into the fold after a stint in the NFL, three years removed from coordinating a defense that improved leaps-and-bounds over the course of the campaign.
The 2016 campaign wasn't without some trials, namely a Week 1 rout against Alabama. But after winning the Rose Bowl at season's end, a beaming Leon McQuay III said in the locker room the catalyst of USC's turnaround: "We got Coach P back!"
McQuay's interception was central to the first USC Rose Bowl win in almost a decade. Interceptions later became points of contention for the Trojans defense under Pendergast, specifically how few it generated.
USC ranked No. 76 nationally in picks in 2019; in 2018, the Trojans ranked 127th. Cal led the nation, coincidentally.
So with Orlando set to be the program's third defensive coordinator of the Helton era, what's going to be different?
Perhaps Orlando has an impact akin to Graham Harrell's in his first year as offensive coordinator. Harrell overhauled a USC offense that badly stagnated in 2018, and with breakout star Kedon Slovis back behind center and Tyler Vaughns eschewing the NFL draft to rejoin a corps that also returns Amon-Ra St. Brown, 2020 looks promising on that side of the ball.
Keeping pace with an uptempo offense the caliber of Harrell's is one of the challenges facing Orlando. He has experience, overseeing the University of Houston defense in the days of dual-threat quarterback Greg Ward Jr. leading the Cougars to a Peach Bowl.
But success elsewhere is no predictor of success at USC; success at USC isn't predictive of sustained success, either. What's more, Orlando's first game day pits his new defense against Alabama.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.