It appears that the only slam dunks coming from USC these days are at the hands of superstar freshman forward Onyeka Okongwu, and while I deeply admire the way that USC basketball has quietly turned into a pacific powerhouse this season, it’s clear that its football counterparts can hardly get an easy win with Trojan fans lately.
As the dust settled and celebrations ceased after the Trojan basketball team’s dramatic 21-point comeback win over a tough Stanford team at Galen Center last Saturday, reports emerged regarding USC’s defensive coordinator search. Weeks after parting ways with Clancy Pendergast following a 49-24 drubbing at the hands of a mediocre Iowa Hawkeyes offense in the Holiday Bowl, the Trojans are now expected to hire Todd Orlando as their next defensive coordinator.
Dismissed earlier in the offseason by Tom Herman in an attempt to rebuild the Longhorn coaching staff in Texas, Orlando landed a spot as the linebackers coach/assistant head coach at Texas Tech before reports arose of his interest in USC.
After publicly failing to lure Los Angeles Rams linebackers coach and former USC assistant Joe Barry to the coordinator job, USC quickly pivoted to Orlando with the hopes of injecting new life into the defense and bringing a new face to a battered Trojan recruiting effort.
Though he’s certainly not the first choice of many armchair athletic directors — former Seahawks defensive coordinator and Trojan alum Kris Richard was nothing if not the fan favorite — Orlando ultimately appears as another suspect coaching decision for a staff rife with mediocrity and second guessing.
Working as a defensive coordinator at five schools over the past 15 years, Orlando has overseen a fairly boom-or-bust slate of defensive units. According to Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings, a system by which all FBS units are equally rated based on opponents and game flow to judge defensive efficiency, Orlando has had seven teams finish in the top 27 while six units clocked in at 53rd or worse.
Despite gaining a reputation for strong initial coaching performances during year one, his defenses have seen a great deal of regression. At Texas, Todd watched as a unit that dominated the Trojans last September and finished that season as the 14th best defense in the nation crumbled due to injury and inflexibility and fell to 68th at the time of his firing in 2019.
Possibly the most troubling aspect of the Orlando hiring, however, is the eerie similarities he shares with the departed Pendergast. One of the most important factors in Clancy’s firing was a perceived lack of flexibility and inability to properly develop defensive talent. Running a converted 3-4 defense, Pendergast relied heavily on skilled pass rushers such as Uchenna Nwosu and Porter Gustin, but when the proverbial pass rushing well ran dry, Pendergast did little to adjust.
The Trojan defense, among other issues, has become a middle-of-the-road pass rushing team despite the aggressive approach. Considering the youth and inexperience of the defensive backfield for USC in 2019, this was a death knell.
On top of all of this, Pendergast’s lack of a grip on recruiting has caused talented local recruits in recent years to slip through the hands of the Trojans, such as current Oregon defensive lineman and former top-ranked recruit Kayvon Thibodeaux and incoming LSU defensive back Elias Ricks among others.
In many ways, Orlando mirrored this behavior and reputation at Texas. According to Anwar Richardson, beat writer for the Longhorns Rivals site, “Todd Orlando didn’t adjust his defensive scheme to suit the talent, players were not developed, and he was not a high-level recruiter.”
In the simplest terms, this would appear to check every box of what the Trojans should theoretically be avoiding in a Pendergast replacement.
That said, it is difficult to argue the merits of fresh blood. For as much as stability, consistency and continuity are great to have in theory, this is a time of upheaval at USC. No one wants a constantly rotating door, but it is clear that the old guard of Heritage Hall is being slowly and painfully churned out in favor of an era of transparency, clarity and — as President Carol Folt and Athletic Director Mike Bohn often point to — integrity.
If anything can be sure, the USC fanbase is not sold. As is the case with pretty much anything the Trojans do these days, seeing is believing.
Until then, the easy scores will remain on the hardwood.
Jimmy Goodman is a senior writing about USC sports. His column, “The Point After,” runs every other Thursday.