Doing it differently on defense

Clancy Pendergast's return already being felt as the USC defense gets back to attacking, playing fast mode with players put in the places where they can make plays.

Here’s how you know this USC defense is different from a year ago. Just watch Quinton Powell. For two seasons, he’s been exiled to special teams.

Sure, the senior from Deltona, Fla. could make plays, had an instinct for the ball and the ability to run to the action. But at 6-foot-2 and not quite 210 pounds, where the heck could they play him, the previous coaching staff asked. And answered by not doing so. Wrong body type.

So where is he now? He’s inside and making plays. Just the way Clancy Pendergast knew he could. There aren’t a lot of guys left over from his time here in 2013, Clancy says, but Quinton is one of them.

“That’s where he played when I was here,” Clancy says. “He has good instincts. “He’ll be stacked (behind a defensive tackle) and he’ll be making plays. He’s an instinctive guy.”

As is Clancy. “I sleep better at night knowing he’s here,” Clay Helton says of Clancy’s second stint as defensive coordinator at USC. “Feels like it was yesterday.”

For a player like Powell, who got the day’s lone pass breakup, it must feel like yesterday. “We’re doing some things differently,” Clancy says, so for even the guys who were here then, it’s an adjustment.

One of those guys was redshirt junior defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow, who says of the trio of his position coach Kenechi Udeze, Pendergast and Helton that “those guys make you want to go out and play.”

”We’re going to be more physical, more attacking and more importantly, all together,” says Bigelow, who expects to play at 290 pounds on his 6-4 frame. And when asked about his injuries at USC, he says there was just one -- an ACL requiring surgery his second season, and that he was healthy last year. And ready and able to play. “That’s all I’ll say,” he says of his lack of playing time. Unless it’s about Clancy. “Me and Coach P have such a great relationship. I know what he wants and he knows that I’m going to give it to him.”

What Clancy wants is plenty of communication,” he says, “like I told you last time I was here. This is a communication-based defense.” And the talking was definitely up Thursday.

”Very few busts,” Helton said of the defense on a day when Max Browne was very much on the money and efficient for an offense that picked up Tuesday’s strong challenge from the defense despite going in helmets and shorts these first two days – no pads.

Another sign of where this defense is headed is the way John Houston is also inside after the five-star from Serra, who could play anywhere, had to sit out last fall with stress fractures in his back that are fully healed now.

“I’ll play wherever the coaches want me,” he says. But at nearly 6-foot-4 and not quite 220, he’s like Powell, not your typical guy in the middle. “We’ll be blitzing and switching up to disguise it," Houston says. "I think they see me as athletic enough to do that.”

And for USC fans who have been watching the Trojans the past two years on defense, they probably have questions about now. What is this blitzing you talk about? And how do you disguise it? What's up with that?

Here’s Helton’s explanation. “Clancy wants them to play fast.” And to do that, he takes it slow. “He won’t move on until they master what they’re doing.”

Take it slow. But play fast. That’s why there’s a 40-minute technique period to start practice and a 45-minute morning workout at 7 a.m. to practice practice.”

That’s all new D-line coach BKU wants from his guys. “It’s a process,” he says. “I want guys taking a step forward every day.” Or, as BKU says, if they don’t, he’ll do the stepping for them. “I’ll be right there stepping on their shoes. And they’ll have a nice shoeshine.

””BKU’s a technician,” Noah Jefferson says. He’s demanding we make plays with our hands.”

Indeed he is. “Never leave home without them,” BKU says, especially on these days without pads. They can still shed their man, maintain outside control and not get tangled up in traffic.

Quick hitters

Helton stopped practice for a couple of huddle-ups and a session of up-downs after some of the chippiness and competitiveness turned into activity after the play was ended . . . “Not exactly a fight,” Bigelow said of the skirmishes between Powell and various defenders with the likes of Aca’Cedric Ware, Darreus Rogers and DeQuan Hampton. No more of that, Clay decreed. Not the competitiveness or the attitude, just the lack of discipline that could produce one dumb extracurricular decision can cost a team a game. Not going to have that. “This is a family,” Bigelow said . . . For those who think they see a lot of Western Kentucky’s top-ranked offense in what the Trojans are doing distributing the ball quickly from side to side to whoever is open, Clay said that would be correct. It’s what they set out to do. Blend the new ideas with the old USC way. “You did see some two-back” out there, Clay said with a wink. And a lot of the stuff Tyson Helton and Neil Callaway brought with them from Western and Tommie Robinson from Texas. And even a designed run for Max, since all the other QBs can tote it, the 6-4 ½, 225-pounder will get the chance as well . . . While we’re talking about the slim guys on defense, Clay says he’s encouraged that corner Isaiah Langley, for example still listed at 165 pounds, has come back with 10 pounds more muscle on him and as much as Clancy likes to play nickel, that will matter . . . Clay said watching Oluwole Betiku run around out there is like watching a prize colt and knowing he’ll some day win the Kentucky Derby. “He has a tremendous want-to and one of these days, the light is going to go on and ‘Wow.” . . . Indeed. Just like after Tuesday’s practice, Betiku worked an extra half-hour after practice, joined by Iman Marshall and Ykili Ross.

*** For more details on today’s practice, check out Thursday Spring Day 2 Ghost Notes.

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