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NCAA Football USC Trojans

Will the USC Trojans’ Defense Be Better in 2013?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Some have speculated that 2013 might be head coach Lane Kiffin‘s last year at USC; some feel another year is still two too many. If Kiffin manages to save his job after 2012′s subpar season, it may be because of his smart decision to hire Clancy Pendergast to revamp and reinvigorate the USC Trojans defense.

Kiffin’s tenure hasn’t been all bad (although last season’s struggles made it difficult to remember the team’s better-than-expected 10-2 run in 2011) but in his three years, the defense has consistently missed the mark.

During those three years, Kiffin’s father, Monte, tried unsuccessfully to install his famed Tampa 2 defense, which was miserably ineffective against Pac-12 offenses. After showing marginal improvement from 2010 to 2011, the Trojans’ D took a giant slide backwards last season, giving up 101 points in back-to-back losses to Oregon and Arizona‘s spread offenses.

Pendergast, the new defensive coordinator, knows what works against Pac-12 offenses, having spent the last three years as the DC at California. With his aggressive approach, Cal jumped from seventh in the Pac-12 to lead the league the last two seasons. At an earlier stop with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, Pendergast took the defense from 32nd to 12th in his first year.

The Trojans hope the new coach will fix a defense that was fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, sixth in pass efficiency defense, seventh in total defense and eighth against the run a year ago.

Rather than a 4-3 front, Pendergast will go with a 5-2 (or 3-4, depending on the opponent, offensive formation, and personnel), and USC’s seven returning starters will line up a little differently this year.

In an interview with USCTrojans.com, he told USCRipsIt editor Jordan Moore: “It’s going to utilize the strengths of the people that we have…We’re not going to be pigeonholed and be in one style of defense; we’re going to do what our players do best.”

Fortunately, Pendergast inherits players who do many things well. Morgan Breslin, the team’s best pass rusher a year ago, had 19.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks in his first season of FBS football. The first-team All Pac-12 defensive end will transition to outside linebacker this fall.

Breslin is one of several returners who’ll find new spots in the new defense. Junior Dion Bailey returns to safety after playing the last two seasons at SAM linebacker. George Uko, who started nine of the Trojans’ 13 games last season at nose tackle, is slotted to play defensive end. Safety Josh Shaw moved to cornerback to start the final seven games of 2012, but he was switched back to safety during the spring.

One of the most intriguing players on defense is fifth-year senior Devon Kennard. He’s moved between linebacker and defensive end throughout his career, but he didn’t play in 2012 after suffering a torn pectoral during preseason. He has 18 career starts and 135 tackles, and he’ll be back this fall as a starting outside linebacker.

In addition to implementing and coordinating the Trojans’ new defense, Pendergast will also coach the secondary, which loses three key starters. In 2012, USC’s secondary ranked 68th in the nation, giving up an average of 240 passing yards per game, but look for the safeties and corners — including some impressive true freshmen — to play tougher and be more physical this year.

“We want to get our hands on receivers and disrupt the timing of the [opposing] offense,” Pendergast told USCTrojans.com. The coach also said he wants his players up front to play “on the offensive line of scrimmage.”

When Kiffin introduced his new coordinator, he praised the “attacking mentality” of Pendergast’s defenses. Essentially, Pendergast wants his defenses to go on the offensive, to make plays instead of simply defending them.

It makes sense that Kiffin, an offensive-minded coach, would turn to a defensive coach with a similar mindset to fix the defense (and maybe save his job). If USC could just hire an offensive coordinator with the same aggression, the Trojans would be in pretty good shape.