Ackerman: New Trojan Coaches Must Get More Out of Their Existing Talent

Ceding L.A. to the Ducks is a problem, but the need to develop players is greater still

Posted on September 18, 2020

Nathan Ackerman
  By Nathan Ackerman of Dash Sports TV for SportsPac12

At the end of the 2019 season, USC football fans demanded an overhaul of the coaching staff above all else. Coming off two straight subpar seasons and compiling a 13-12 record over the previous two years — historically bad by Trojan football standards—change was necessary. 

Luckily for those Trojan fans, an overhaul is exactly what they got, albeit with a slight caveat: One of the few remaining from those dreadful seasons is arguably the one that needed canning the most. And if I’ve left any ambiguity whatsoever, I’ll remove it at once: I’m looking directly at your Sam-Darnold-reliant face, Clay Helton.

But I digress. 


Safeties coach John Baxter? Gone, and hopefully with him, USC’s remarkable ability to let kickoffs ruin games for them. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast? Fired into the sun. Inside linebackers coach Johnny Nansen? See ya. Secondary coach Greg Burns? Burned. Defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a? Sweet name, but gone.

You get the point. This new staff, though led by the same guy, is not the old staff. Craig Naivar is in as safeties coach. John David Baker is in as tight ends coach. Todd Orlando as defensive coordinator. Donte Williams as cornerbacks coach. 

But which one matters the most?


There’s an easy answer here: It’s Williams, essentially the consensus best recruiter in the Pac-12. USC’s recruiting class ranked No. 20 nationally in 2019 and No. 64 (!) for the Class of 2020. Four- and five-star talents from Los Angeles are ditching the storied Trojans for Oregon like they never would have a decade ago. It’s—to say the least—not great.

It’s a valid point. That dumpster fire of a recent recruiting history has got to change. (Tangent: If you’re reading this, Korey Foreman, feel free to do your part.) The Trojans have to make L.A. their backyard again, and Williams can figure to do that.

But I’m here to make the case for Orlando.


Now, I understand this hire isn’t like USC replaced Pendergast (read: unmitigated disaster) with Bill Belichick (read: defensive mastermind). Orlando’s groups at Texas, Houston and before were never particularly dominant, and it seemed like a hire USC fans were supposed to get excited about only because, my god, anything is better than Clancy Pendergast—even if Orlando is a marginal improvement at best.

And I understand that everything I just said about Williams rings true—we know Helton can’t drive the recruiting bus if USC wants to eek into its first College Football Playoff sometime in the next few years. 

But here’s the thing: Recruiting, underwhelming as it may be, has not been the problem with USC the last couple years. It’s been getting the most of the talent that the Trojans already have. 

Examine this roster for me, particularly on the defensive side of the ball: Drake Jackson. Jay Tufele. Brandon Pili. Marlon Tuipulotu. John Houston Jr. Talanoa Hufanga. Isaiah Pola-Mao. Chris Steele. Olaijah Griffin. Greg Johnson. Isaac Taylor-Stuart. 

USC fell 49-24 to Iowa in the Holiday Bowl last season. | Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

You think that team should go 8-4 and get thrashed in the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl by freaking Iowa?

You think that team—minus Jackson and Steele—should go 5-7 the year prior and not even make a bowl game for the first time in two decades?*

(*Two years of bogus playoff ineligibility not included.)

The problem was Pendergast, not the recruiting. I repeat, louder this time: The problem was Pendergast, not the recruiting. 

Those disastrous 2018 and 2019 seasons came when USC had compiled its typical elite recruiting classes the few years prior, but what did it matter? The Trojans allowed the sixth fewest points per game in the Pac-12 last year, the sixth fewest yards per game (including the ninth fewest rushing yards), the eighth most interceptions—the list goes on and on. 

The overwhelming point is a huge indictment on a defensive coaching staff that took a roster laden with NFL-hopeful talent and turned it into a group that ranked at the middle-to-bottom of a conference notoriously bad at the sport of football. 

usc logoAnd maybe, just maybe, Orlando and his somewhat intimidating, hyper-aggressive coaching style are what USC needs to take that talent, light a fire under it and turn it into production. If there’s anything that suggests he can, it’s that he isn’t Clancy Pendergast. 

So fine, call me crazy for arguing that the savior of USC’s woesome recruiting efforts will be less meaningful to the program than the marginal improvement over a previous defensive coordinator who set the bar about 50 feet deep in the caverns of hell. 

But that marginal improvement will make a world of difference. 

You can watch Ackerman’s companion Trojan Dash Sports Talk Show on Dash Sports TV, and read his other work at the Daily Trojan.

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