The USC head coaching search enters its second week since the firing of Steve Sarkisian.
While a majority of USC fans are pushing for a “proven” head coach to take the reigns of the football program, Houston Cougars head coach Tom Herman is proving why he is considered a hot commodity among the possible candidates for the job.
Herman came to Houston after helping to lead Ohio State to a national championship as an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under Urban Meyer. That is an achievement in itself, but considering that the Buckeyes were forced to start three different quarterbacks on their way to that undefeated season, Herman was awarded the Broyles Award, given annually to the nation's top assistant coach.
Before being hired by Meyer in 2012, Herman was an offensive coordinator under Paul Rhoads at Iowa State for three years. He got his start coaching in Texas for a decade as a receivers, quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator at various schools like Rice, Texas State and Sam Houston State.
On Dec. 15, 2014, Herman was named head coach by the Houston Cougars. Since then, Herman has led the Cougars to a 7-0 record, averaging 47.5 points a game while allowing 20 points on defense. Houston currently has the nation’s No. 7 rush offense and is No. 30 in pass offense.
Defensively, Houston is top 15 in scoring defense and sacks nationally. The Cougars are also No. 9 nationally in rush defense.
“For winning championships, for getting rings on fingers, I know how to do it. It ain’t by walking. It ain’t by putting your toes in the green. It’s by doing everything perfectly.” — Houston head coach Tom Herman
Herman may not have much experience as a head coach, but he is 40-years-old, which by Mike Gundy’s definition, is a man. All jokes aside, Herman stresses detail in his team’s preparation and is a vocal leader.
Houston is often thought of as finesse program that relies heavily on passing the football, but Herman has instilled a hard-nosed mentality and openly challenges his players with that competitive mindset in practice.
Herman is not your typical pass-first quarterback coach turned head coach. While Herman helped develop three very good signal-callers at Ohio State, his run-spread option scheme also requires some physicality from the quarterback position.
“We want every defense to have to account for the quarterback in the run game and allow us to equate numbers or at least get numbers close to equal as we can in the run game. So that's kind of our philosophy.” — Tom Herman while at Ohio State
Herman grew up an only child raised by his mother. Without a father figure in his life, he depended on the mentorship of his football coaches as a youth. Born in Ohio, Herman spent his formative years in Simi Valley (Calif.) and eventually went to college at Cal Lutheran University, where he was All-Southern California as a wide out.
With Herman setting out to be a coach while taking graduate assistant jobs in Texas, his wife, Michelle, stayed in Los Angeles and supported the two of them. In addition to earning a B.S. in Business Administration from Cal Lutheran, he would get his masters degree in education while he was a graduate assistant from the University of Texas.
Although he will garner comparisons to former USC head coaches Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian because of his youth, Herman worked his way through Division I-AA schools before being hired as an offensive coordinator by Rice in 2007. Herman started at the bottom, and while he is on the fast track to a big-time job now, his approach to coaching reflects the grind it took to have the opportunities now staring him in the face.
As stated above, Herman uses the same spread option offensive system at Houston as Urban Meyer does at Ohio State. Obviously, Houston doesn’t have the physical capability to own the line of scrimmage like the Buckeyes, so although the Cougars use many of the same formations, Herman’s play calling relies on more motion and misdirection.
Herman is inheriting a team that was built to pass, pass some more, and then set up the pass with more passes. Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin established the Air Raid offense at Houston, which Tony Levine then attempted to continue running until he was fired.
Houston now runs an up-tempo offense that features plenty of shotgun formations. However, instead of using personnel groupings of four and five wide outs on every play, Herman is using 11 personnel with a tight end. The Cougars often use their tight end as a H-back wing, occasionally cross blocking from motion.
Like at Ohio State, the H-back in this offense is a fullback, tight end hybrid. Houston will also use various pistol formations with the H-back shifting from a wing position to the Nevada pistol train set as a lead blocker. With the Cougars roster heavy on small, quick wide receivers, Herman is still a couple of years away from being able to use the power off set counter trey formations that Urban Meyer uses with the Buckeyes.
Herman has continued to rely heavily on the read option at Houston. Designed runs by the quarterback have been a big part of his offense since his days at Iowa State, so there is little doubt that system requirement would carry over at USC.
In fact, there's a chance a player like Jalen Greene, who moved from quarterback to wide receiver last summer, would move back to quarterback in an effort to develop more athleticism at that position. USC freshman quarterback Sam Darnold may also flourish in this offense, but he would be the closest thing to a pocket passer Herman has coached in years.
Seven games into the 2105 season, Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. has 1,734 yards passing and 10 touchdowns. But Ward is also the team’s leading rusher with 677 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground. Ward was recruited by most schools to play cornerback out of high school. Herman isn’t just using a quarterback who can run in his offense, he’s using an athlete to take snaps. Outside of the quarterback position, only slight shifts in recruiting would likely occur under Herman on offense.
The slot position would continue to spotlight players like Adoree Jackson, who have the ability to both run and catch out of the backfield. USC’s outside receivers would continue to be key run blockers in the offense, while the fullback and tight end position would merge.
On defense, Houston currently uses a hybrid 3-4 scheme. Under Briles and Sumlin, the Cougars’ defense ranked in the nation's top-50 in total defense just once while finishing below 100 four times. Levine improved those stats slightly, but not as much as Herman’s staff has this season. Houston’s defensive roster is still loaded with smallish linebackers better suited for a 3-3-5 stack scheme.
Still, Houston’s defense is causing turnovers and getting sacks with a lot of blitzing from those small, yet quick linebackers. Of course, much of the credit for that has to be given to Cougars defensive coordinator, Todd Orlando. Ohio State runs a base 4-3 defense, so Herman has no single defensive scheme he prefers. However, it is notable that Herman’s offensive scheme is not sacrificing his defense’s ability to play aggressively.
Herman is from Southern California, although his coaching ties are all based in Texas. Much of Herman’s current staff is from Texas with a number of them having spent most of their coaching careers in Texas, so while additions to the USC staff like defensive line coach Oscar Giles or offensive coordinator Major Applewhite may increase the Trojans pull in the Lone Star State, Herman would have to reach further for coaches with knowledge of the West Coast recruiting trail. Being so young and having never coached in the region, that may be a challenge.
In terms of personnel, dual-threat quarterbacks and scramblers would become a priority in recruiting for Herman. A quarterback like Bishop Gorman junior Tate Martell would once again become a prime target for USC. Herman’s eye for talent is an unknown at this point. While some may give him credit for Ohio State’s three headed monster at quarterbacks, he did not actually recruit any of those players.
Herman was a good recruiter at Ohio State, landing a handful of Scout 300 prospects from Texas for the Buckeyes in his three seasons as offensive coordinator. But with so little recruiting data as a head coach, it’s hard to analyze the development of his system from the ground up. Houston does have a commitment from Westfield five-star defensive tackle Ed Oliver, although that pledge is predicated on assistant coaching ties.
Herman is unproven. While he carries himself like a seasoned head coach and has the makeup of a great leader, he is embarking on his first season in the American Athletic Conference. Houston’s meeting with Memphis and Justin Fuente in November will draw national attention, but will it prove either coach is actually ready to lead a program like USC back to national prominence? Fuentes has a win against Ole Miss under his belt and two more seasons as a head coach.
The hirings, and subsequent firings, of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian will cast a cloud over any young up-and-coming offensive minded coaches taking over at USC. Fair or not, recruits and fans alike will be skeptical of Herman until he wins a Pac-12 title. With an offensive system that relies on a quarterback that can run the read option, Herman may not be able to have the immediate success at USC he has had at Houston.
Herman also has few recruiting ties out west. And while recruiting well at USC is much easier than at Houston, Herman has no Super Bowl, national championship or bowl trophies to point to in head to head battles with other major programs. Again, credibility will have to be earned at USC when USC needs credibility now.
Herman has the potential to be the next Urban Meyer, to which USC would benefit from cheaply for the next five or six years without the NFL being a realistic option for the young head coach. His buyout from Houston is $2.25 million, but his annual salary this year is only $1.3 million. While Herman’s system may take time to implement, and recruits may be skeptical, the upside to his success is extremely high.
The fact is, Herman was a very good recruiter at Ohio State, and outside a move away from a dying breed of pocket-passers and fullbacks, his system is balanced enough to attract talent at every position. On the other hand, many former USC football alums feel that recruits come to USC to prepare for the NFL. Thus, running a pro-style system on offense recruits itself.
Indeed, it’s not just youth or perception that make Herman a challenging hire for USC athletic director Pat Haden. It’s how much different Herman is as a coach from Kiffin and Sarkisian that makes him both a good candidate and a big gamble.