After the USC football team finished the regular season 8-4, prospects for the program modestly appeared to be improving. The team won five out of its last six contests and only narrowly missed out on a spot in the Pac-12 Championship, and USC earned an appearance against the No. 16 Iowa Hawkeyes in the Holiday Bowl.
Unfortunately for the Trojans, the second half success didn’t tell the full story of a defense that finished 78th in the nation. The good times quickly came to an abrupt end for Helton and company during a 49-24 loss to the Hawkeyes, and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was fired the next day. With frustration at University Park building and the defensive coordinator position in flux, here are some of the candidates most likely to replace Pendergast in the upcoming season.
Barry served as the linebackers coach and associate head coach of the Los Angeles Rams for the past three years. Before coaching the Rams, Barry was the defensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins from 2015 to 2016. He played linebacker at USC during the 1990s before entering the coaching field.
After the Rams parted ways with former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, Barry’s name emerged as a possible candidate to take over that same position with the Rams. However, with the Rams’ Friday hiring of Brandon Staley, Barry is now out of the mix for that position, increasing the chance that he’ll end up on Helton’s staff. As of now, Barry is considered one of the frontrunners for the job at USC, and has already interviewed for it, according to NBC Sports.
Like Barry, Richard is also a USC alum. The current Dallas Cowboys defensive backs coach played cornerback for the Trojans from 1998 to 2001 and played seven seasons in the NFL before returning to USC in 2008 as a graduate assistant coach under head coach Pete Carroll. Afterward, Richard followed Carroll to the Seattle Seahawks, where he coached for eight seasons—including three as defensive coordinator and developed one of the most dominant secondaries in football’s history — the Legion of Boom.
Richard would be a fitting hire for USC. He’s a Southern California native who could provide a necessary boost to a team that has declined dramatically in recruiting rankings in recent seasons, and his renowned intensity could bring about a culture change for a program in urgent need of one.
Richard’s name is floating around as a top candidate for numerous defensive coordinator opportunities in the NFL, but given his connections to the cardinal and gold, he can’t be counted out as Pendergast’s eventual replacement.
Unsurprisingly, another former Trojan has been rumored as a candidate to rejoin USC next season. Nielsen played defensive end for four years at USC before joining the Trojans’ coaching staff in 2002. His most recent college coaching stint came as defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator at North Carolina State from 2013 to 2016, where he developed a front four that all got drafted and included first-rounder Bradley Chubb.
After his tenure at NC State, Nielsen was hired as the New Orleans Saints defensive line coach in 2017. In three seasons, Nielsen improved the Saints’ defensive line from a unit that was No. 27 in sacks and No. 19 in run defense before his arrival to a front that now ranks No. 3 in sacks and No. 5 in run defense.
Given this demonstrated ability to develop talent at the highest level, Nielsen is one of the hottest candidates rumored to be in the running for USC’s defensive vacancy.
Coming in as the first candidate on the list without a degree from USC, Arnett is the current defensive coordinator for the San Diego State Aztecs.
Like Arnett’s coaching candidacy, San Diego State’s defensive prowess has flown under the radar in recent seasons. Last season, Arnett’s Aztecs ranked No. 4 in the nation in points allowed per game, No. 2 in rushing yards allowed per game and No. 4 in passes intercepted — all numbers that ranked far better than USC.
Arnett ran a 3-3-5 defensive scheme similar to what Pendergast ran in recent seasons. Considering his success at SDSU and what would likely be a reduced learning curve for USC’s defense, Arnett could at least be given an interview.
Ironically, the only coach on this list who is a household name among college football fans is also the coach who appears to be getting the least buzz regarding USC’s open position.
If hired, Strong would arrive at University Park with 10 years of head coaching experience and a championship defensive pedigree, having served as co-defensive coordinator and defensive coordinator for Urban Meyer’s National Championship teams at Florida in 2006 and 2008, respectively.
Strong hasn’t enjoyed the same success as a head coach. Over the course of three seasons at Texas, he went 16-21 before being fired and taking the same job at USF, where he went 21-16 after three seasons and was fired last month. Still, Strong’s background alone would make him an attention-grabbing offseason hire and could have a strong impact in turning USC’s defensive struggles around.