Making the case for this coaching staff

Synergy seems to be the watchword for a group that knows one another well and shouldn't lose a beat when it gets back from recruiting and starts coaching.

Now we know. And yet we don't.

We know the names -- all nine of them: Tee and Clancy, Tyson and Callaway, Baxter and T-Rob, Nansen and Ronnie -- and last but not least this week, BKU.

Some names and faces, coaching resumes and styles we know only too well. But not all -- although we are getting a familiar feeling despite the total focus on recruiting now that hasn't freed any of them for a 2016 sitdown yet.

What we don't know, what we can't know, is how this all works when it comes together. Clay Helton has never done this before, well not from the get-go. He's done it in midseason and postseason. Now he gets the offseason.

And as impressive as Clay has been with his straight talk, his vision for the future of a USC football program that he sees as linked inseparably with its physical past and his direct way with players and media that's all to the good, he's starting a bit from behind here again.

The "fresh legs first" Holiday Bowl prep was a clear miss. Clay has to know it. The players pretty much have all heard the criticism even if they're not saying.

"Wasn't Wisconsin practicing in full pads Christmas Eve and Christmas Day?" quarterback Max Browne said with a laugh when asked about the light work schedule of just seven practices, one in pads, leading up to the 23-21 loss.

"I don't know," Max said, "we didn't play our best game."

USC fans think they know. And with the next game against national champ Alabama, playing one's best game is probably going to have to be a priority for these Trojans. So is this team, this staff, capable of getting there?

Here's our take. We think they are. There's no upside to think any other way at this point. They have a chance. That's all you can ask.

We won't specifically discuss Clay's coaching here since we've gone over that ground plenty since his naming more than six weeks ago. This is about his Clay's staff.

Although that does get us to Clay as the first-time staff-builder and the charges of an inadequate "Rolodex." Turns out he almost didn't need one. Four of these guys -- Tee, Clancy, Baxter and T-Rob were with him in that turnaround campaign two years ago after Lane Kiffin was dumped after five games.

Three were here last fall -- Tee, Nansen and BKU. One of them -- BKU -- was also here 15 years ago when Pete Carroll got USC's 21st Century run started.

You have to like both ends of the BKU equation. He's seen his young D-line guys up close and personal, pushing the iron and pushing themselves in conditioning. He knows what they need and clearly isn't afraid to demand it.

It may be one of the few times the youngest coach -- BKU is only 32 -- will be the toughest taskmaster. But right now he's our pick as the kick-butt guy here.

Although we've heard this description of new O-line coach Neil Callaway, USC's O-line coach who at one time, as a former Alabama player for Bear Bryant, and as a top assistant/O-line guy at 'Bama, Auburn and Georgia, owned more SEC football championship rings than any other living person. Just having him on the sideline next September has to be a plus.

We also like the fact that if there are two tough taskmasters on this staff, two guys we could call hammers, we like it that it's the two line coaches. It starts there. Up front. With Kenechi and Callaway.

Here's the kind of talk we like to hear about Callaway. "For the first 30 days, his players will hate him, from then on they'll love him," one knowledgeable observer says. Listening to what his charges from a record-breaking Western Kentucky offense had to say about him, that sounds about right. This team needs a tough-minded veteran like Neil Callaway.

But we don't like to separate Callaway from Tyson Helton, since the WKU guys are an offensive pair with Clay's younger brother having worked his way up from Hawai'i, UAB, Memphis and Cincinnati. He may have drawn the lucky family straw, but he's earned it after watching the 25th-ranked (and Top 10 on offense) Hilltoppers this past year. Between them, they bring 37 years of coaching experience to Troy.

And if there was one way USC didn't quite get its act together the way we'd have liked last year, it was the meshing of the run game with the backs and line executing together consistently. Way too many whiffs. Way too many second-and-longs.

The addition of Tommie Robinson as run game coordinator/running backs coach is a home run hire. I like the synergy of the WKU pair with the experienced T-Rob, who has wanted in the worst way to get back to USC since ending up at Texas the last two years after not being hired by Steve Sarkisian. He told one and all he'd be back if only he got the chance. He did. And he is.

Talking of synergy, we like the way this gives Tee Martin the opportunity to develop into the offensive coordinator USC really had to offer the former national title-winning Tennessee signal-caller. He'll have the Helton-Callaway-T-Rob trio working with him in one direction as he evolves his offensive thinking with the other Helton acting from above.

That may also free up Tee to resume at times, as he has this past month, his duties as USC's ace recruiter. We'll be interested in how those recruiting roles play out for the rest of the staff although the designation of coordinator goes to linebackers coach Johnny Nansen in a holdover role for him after moving from running backs to linebackers, the position he played in college.

It should be a better fit for Nansen and with all the young talent there, we look for defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, coming off his linebacker coaching spot with the Niners, to pitch in here. Again, synergy.

Getting Clancy back was a key move for Clay. It took a while. But Clancy has proved in his return to college at Cal and his year at USC, he can get results right away. We like his 5-2 look that basically takes advantage of his talent in a much-more attacking way for a defense that on the front seven cannot sit back and wait for something to happen.

He's the right guy for this gig. And we think the enthusiasm of BKU and secondary coach Ronnie Bradford on the recruiting trail will make up for Clancy's NFL ways. Of all the coaches coming in, Colorado alum and NFL vet Ronnie, out of Louisiana Tech, is the wild card here. but he was Clancy's call and we'll give him that.

Taking over Nansen's special teams gig, as well as tight ends, is another returnee, John Baxter, a one-of-a-kind veteran with a twinkle in his eye and an academic gameplan that USC should make more use of this time around. He's been gone two years with one of those at Michigan. Now he's back.

We like what this says about where special teams fit in here under Clay. And for the on-campus visits with parents, Baxter's academics work really well. We also like what it says when USC is getting coaches back from places like Michigan and Texas.

This might be the time to mention the one point of criticism for Clay, the Sunday firing after the Stanford game of four coaches who then were not available for the Holiday Bowl, and how it could work out in the long run. It was done to let those guys get their next jobs, maybe at USC's expense a bit, although it allowed Clay to see BKU in a way he would not have. But it says in this case, USC under Clay, will treat you right.

Among them, the five coaches who left -- including Marques Tuiasosopo, who did so voluntarily, have five jobs -- if reports out of Wisconsin are correct that Justin Wilcox is the new defensive coordinator there.

Chris Wilson has already moved from Missouri to the NFL's Eagles. Peter Sirmon is DC at Mississippi State. Keith Heyward is secondary coach at Louisville. Only Bob Connelly has yet to be employed.

This is where, from a mostly untested head coach to a staff that fits together, the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts as that USC staff, with so few numbers to work with in 2014, managed to be on short notice. Look at the Stanford game and the Las Vegas Bowl for examples of how this should look.

And sure, some were yearning for a return of Ed Orgeron. But BKU may be as close as it gets to his old coach. As for Clay, here's how CEO describes what happened two years ago when both of them, Ed and Clay, were interviewed for the interim head coaching job.

"I think I did a really good job on my interview," Ed said about the challenge of jumping in to right the Trojan ship and outlining what USC football needed to be. "I really did. But Clay, he hit a home run."

Now Clay has help here. Half of it the same as the last time. And there's the challenge of the nation's toughest schedule. Can they get it done?

We'll see. We think with this staff, they have a chance. But then this is USC. USC almost always has a chance. The job here is to make this no longer a game of chance.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.


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