Kiffin takes a chance in DC hire

With national signing day fast approaching, USC coach Lane Kiffin crossed off the most glaring issue of the offseason this past week when he officially named Clancy Pendergast his new defensive coordinator.

Prior to a report on Pendergast’s impending hiring, little had been reported regarding possible candidates or coaches that had interviewed with Kiffin for the position. Upon first hearing of the decision to hire Pendergast, my first thought was simple: Who is Clancy Pendergast?

Some quick research began to paint the picture. First off, Pendergast is an experienced defensive coach at both the college and professional level. The 45-year-old also has roots in the Pac-12, as he served as the defensive coordinator for Cal the past three seasons and was also a graduate assistant at USC in 1992, just two years after he earned his undergraduate degree from Arizona. Other college stops include a year as a graduate assistant at Mississippi State and two seasons as an assistant at Oklahoma.

His NFL resume is even more extensive. Pendergast’s first job in the NFL came with the Houston Oilers in 1995, when he served as a defensive assistant and worked primarily with linebackers. He stayed only one season in Houston before going to the Dallas Cowboys to coach their secondary.

After seven seasons in Dallas, he had a yearlong stint with the Cleveland Browns as a linebackers coach before landing his first coordinating job with the Arizona Cardinals. His five-year stay in Glendale was highlighted by the team’s appearance in Super Bowl XLIII, where the Cardinals narrowly lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-23. Despite the team’s success, Pendergast was fired less than a week after the game by first-year head coach Ken Whisenhunt.

Pendergast stayed in the NFL for one more season, this time with the Kansas City Chiefs. He was the defensive coordinator for only one season before being replaced by Romeo Crennel. After the 2009 season, he was hired by Cal where he stayed for three seasons, his last coming in 2012.

At Cal, Pendergast’s defense led the Pac-12 in total defense in 2010 and 2011 but plummeted to No. 10 last season. The Golden Bears’ scoring defense had a similar trend, finishing third, fourth and ninth, respectively, in Pendergast’s first, second and third seasons.

I’ll admit the trend is troubling. That Cal’s defense got progressively worse, at least statistically, in each year under Pendergast’s watch is certainly not a good thing. But many of the positive things being said about Pendergast revolve around one game rather than any particular season: Cal’s 2010 game against Oregon, where the Ducks squeaked out a 15-13 win at Berkeley. Oregon led the nation in scoring that season en route to a 12-1 record and an appearance in the BCS national championship game.

I remember that season vividly: Nobody came close to slowing Oregon down that year. The Ducks were in then-Oregon coach Chip Kelly’s second season, and his revolutionary offensive approach was finally taking the nation by storm. Oregon’s offense averaged 530.7 yards per game that season and heading into the game against Cal, it had averaged nearly 55 points per contest through the season’s first nine games.

Cal, though, had no interest in hosting the Ducks for a track meet that night. The Golden Bears’ defense held LaMichael James and company to a mere 317 total yards and a miniscule 2.9 yards per carry. The team that managed to score 73 offensive touchdowns for the season was only able to record one in this game, as the Ducks returned a punt for a touchdown in the game’s first half.

Pendergast’s aggressive style and propensity to blitz and utilize man-to-man coverage has been credited in this much-lauded performance, something that former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was less apt to utilize (Kiffin’s schemes relied more on zone defense).

If I haven’t done a good job at selling Pendergast as a good hire, I’m not surprised. One of the things Lane Kiffin mentioned in his announcement was Pendergast’s familiarity with Pac-12 offenses; the numbers, however, demonstrate that the more familiar Pendergast became with the Pac-12, the more success opposing offenses had scoring points on the Bears’ defense. So how can this be evaluated as a smart hire?

Call it a gut feeling, but I feel that one performance against Oregon carries some significant weight. Oregon doesn’t have problems scoring against anybody, and never in the Chip Kelly era did they have as much trouble in one game as they did on that night. Even with Kelly gone, Oregon’s offense is still the class of the Pac-12, though Rose Bowl champion Stanford might have something to say about that. Regardless, Kiffin knows that if the Trojans are to contend in the Pac-12 (which, regardless of last season’s struggles, will be the expectations of USC fans everywhere), they need to be able to contain high-powered offenses like Oregon’s. And even if it was just that one performance, Pendergast gives USC that chance.

Early reviews have been positive in one key area: among recruits. Current USC commits, such as cornerback Chris Hawkins and linebacker Michael Hutchings, expressed their enthusiasm upon hearing of Pendergast’s hire. Other USC recruits have familiarity with Pendergast, who courted many of them while at Cal.

Given the previously mentioned defections of several USC targets, Pendergast serving as a stabilizing force among this class is definitely reassuring. The on-field performance of the USC defense under the helm of its new defensive coordinator will, in time, make a case for or against itself. His hire is a gamble, but it is one that Kiffin knows he has to make.  USC had plenty of issues that led to its abysmal 2012 season, but chief among them was its defense.

Pegging Pendergast as defensive coordinator can be seen as a boom-or-bust move, one that is right in line with Pendergast’s blitz-heavy scheme. Was Cal’s regression last year indicative of its coach or its inexperienced players? The answer might lie somewhere in the middle.  What is clear, however, is that Kiffin saw enough potential in Pendergast to label him as the “perfect fit” to run his defense.  Many may be skeptical of such adulation, especially given Cal’s defensive struggles following their lone mastery of Oregon.  But, as far as this Trojan fan is concerned, one brilliant defensive performance is enough to provide hope that many more can come from a unit that hasn’t experienced any in quite some time.


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