USC, Pendergast implement 5-2 scheme

LOS ANGELES –The days of the SAM, MIKE, and WILL linebackers have vanished at USC.
Defensively, they’re taking a different approach.

“I would think of it as five defensive linemen really,” USC head coach Lane Kiffin said. “They rush more than they drop.” 

Added middle linebacker Hayes Pullard: “It’s two middle linebackers.” 

It’s the 5-2 defense brought in by new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. The 5-2 has nuances of the 4-3, and the 3-4. It allows you to be flexible as a defense.

“We can be interchangeable about the pieces that we put out there,” Pendergast said. “In a 5-2 type scheme you can put five big guys or you can go with three smaller guys. Three big guys and four small guys and we can just mix and match a little better.”

It’s all predicated on being able to slow down the various spread offenses throughout the Pac-12, something the Trojans were unable to do in the previous three seasons under former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who resigned at the end of last season.
The Trojans were 60th in the country in total defense last season. They were 47th in the nation in stopping third downs.

Enter Pendergast, who was the defensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals during their run to the Super Bowl in 2008.

He had a bump in the road last season at Cal when the Golden Bears finished 10th in the Pac-12 in total defense. In his previous two seasons, Cal was first in the conference in total defense.

One thing he has on his side is familiarity with teams in the conference, something the elder Kiffin didn’t have on his side after one season at Tennessee before spending the previous 26 seasons in the NFL.

In Pendergast’s scheme there will be two standup rush ends. The leading men in those roles are Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard.

It will be an adjustment for Breslin. The senior led the team with 13 sacks last season but did it with his hand in the ground. He’ll be standing up in the new scheme and will even have to drop back in coverage at times.

As for Kennard, who missed all of last season with a torn pectoral muscle, this will be yet another role for him in his USC career. He entered USC in 2009 as a defensive end. He’s also played middle linebacker in his time with the Trojans and last season he was slated to start a defensive end before his injury.

“I think this is probably his best role as a stand up guy that can rush and drop a little bit and play on the edge,” said Kiffin of Kennard. 

Using Kiffin’s stance of thinking of the Trojans defense featuring five defensive linemen in the game, it would appear the team speed would take a hit, but Pendergast believes the simplicity of the scheme will outweigh that.

“To me as long as it’s simple enough for the guys, they can fly around, I think they’ll be able to use their speed,” the Trojans new defensive coordinator said. “We’re not going to play slow. We’re going to let these guys loose a little bit.”

It will be an adjustment on all three levels of the defense. Unlike in the past, it’s imperative all three levels communicate with other in what Pendergast says is a “communication oriented defense.” 

“We never had a defense that communicated all the way down from three levels,” Pullard said. “Last defense was just set what we do and we go out there and put your cleats in the grass and play football.”

The main objective this spring is to figure out where each player is going to lineup and for everyone to be comfortable with the new scheme heading into the summer and Fall Camp. Pendergast feels if they can accomplish those things through 15 spring practices, they’ll be “ahead of the game a little bit” as a defensive unit.

A key cog they won’t be able to evaluate is linebacker Dion Bailey, who’ll miss the entire spring recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Bailey is expected to make a return to his more natural safety position. If so, he’ll be a part of a revamped unit that lost three starters from last season. The lone returner, Josh Shaw, has switched from cornerback to safety where he’s expected to communicate with the linebackers in the 5-2 scheme.

“We’ve been a 4-3 defense here for a long, long time and it’s just a different style,” Kiffin said. “The 4-3’s more packed in and this is more spread out as far as stopping the edges. I think it’s the way to go in this conference. It’s why we made the change and other people over the last two years have made that change too.”