Physicality has been a theme with for USC offense this fall, but the defense saw a transformation in that department three years ago when Clancy Pendergast was named Trojans defensive coordinator for the first time in 2013.
From that point on, USC has been recruiting nose tackles and 260-pound defensive ends to play outside linebacker. Johnny Nansen and Kenechi Udeze are the two position coaches now responsible for developing those players.
Utah defensive transfer Stevie Tu'ikolovatu is perhaps the biggest addition to the trenches for USC this off season.
“What Stevie brings to our defensive line and our team cannot be measured,” said Udeze. “We’re happy that he’s a Trojan — even if it’s only for one year.
“Since he’s stepped on campus and joined this team, he has had a dominant presence. It really can’t be matched with what we had in the spring. I’m really excited about him.
“And then you have Josh Fatu, who’s also a great worker. He’s learning the fundamentals and getting his technique down. I see him really starting to turn the corner and that’s important because I think he has the ability to help us eventually.”
“Me and Josh went to Lakewood together, so we’ve been boys for a while,” said Lobendahn. “It’s been a pleasure to have him here with me.
“He actually played o-line with me at Lakewood. Just to see him now, he’s bigger, faster and stronger. I think he’s going to give a lot of help to our defensive line.
“And then with Stevie… that guy is just a beast. He’s going to be a big help with his size and leverage. You’re not just thinking about X’s and O’s when you have a guy like that in the middle. You have to double team him almost every play.”
USC lost four starters off the defensive line in 2015, which makes Tui’Kolovatu’s maturity on and off the field that much more important.
“That’s the cool thing about football,” said Udeze. “You have vocal leaders, guys who lead by example and then guys that just show up and go to work.
“He has a presence about him that we didn’t have last spring. It’s contagious. Now we have guys like Jacob Daniel, who are getting better because the competition level has risen. But it’s not about just Jacob Daniel. It’s about the entire group competing and maturing.”
But to some extent, Udeze is maturing along with his group of defensive linemen. As a first time full time position coach, Udeze arrived at the Coliseum for Monday’s scrimmage with a big smile.
The former first round pick by the Minnesota Vikings was force to retire from professional football in 2008 after he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He returns to USC with a unique appreciation for those around him.
“More than anything, I’m just thankful,” said Udeze. “Eight years ago I was in a hospital bed fighting for my life. From Clay Helton, to Clancy Pendergast, to the best graduate assistant in the world, Austin Clark, I’m the beneficiary of having great people around me.
“Success here isn’t about what I can accomplish — it’s about what everyone around me can accomplish. We’re growing with one another and it’s really going to be a special time here at USC.”
As a young coach, Udeze has had to establish a philosophy his players can buy into.
“Never give up and quitting is not an option,” said Udeze. “Not matter how dark it gets and how weak you may be, until your last breath you fight.
“The cool thing is that I see guys doing that. They don’t feel good and they really aren’t 100-percent, but they throw themselves out there. Not only for myself, or Coach Helton, but they do it for the team. I look at the guys we have, and the guys like Keary Colbert and Troy Polamalu who made those past teams successful, and I can’t think of a better group of guys to do something special with.”
The winning edge
USC outside linebackers coach Johnny Nansen has had several different views of the hashmarks in his coaching career. Having coached defensive backs, defensive line, special teams and more recently, running backs, Nansen knows his way around the tackle box.
Now coaching the linebacker position for the Trojans, Nansen is mentoring maybe the rawest player on the practice field in Oluwole Betiku.
“He came in very green, but I think he has made huge strides,” said Nansen. “I really like what I’m seeing from him.
“He’s a very talented kid, and I think being around Porter (Gustin) and Uchenna (Nwosu) has helped. He had a great summer and we’re taking one step at a time with him. Once he starts to understand the assignments he is going to excel.
“This is really the first week of practice, so next week I’m going to really challenge him to step it up. I’m counting on him helping us out this year.”
In 2013, USC used Devon Kennard and Morgan Breslin as outside linebackers in Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 defense. This week, the Trojans had both Betiku and fellow freshman Connor Murphy sharing the field at the same time.
“We’re just trying to get them more reps,” said Nansen. “With Wole, he’s good when we do individual drills, but he needs those lives reps of football.
“He and Connor are going to be really good. I’ve got a talent group, but those young guys need reps.”
That means Betiku, currently playing the predator position on defense, is not slated to play SAM linebacker any time soon.
“No, no…,” laughed Nansen. “We want him getting upfield and attacking the quarterback.”
Coaching linebackers for Nansen comes with a unique sense of familiarity. Spending the last three seasons as a running backs coach, the differences between coaching the two positions are not as significant as some might assume.
“When I was coaching running backs I was basically coaching them from the perspective of what the linebackers were thinking,” said Nansen. “I tried to have the guys understand the run fits and how linebackers approach those.
“Linebacker is a passion of mine. I played the position and being able to coach it at a school like USC is amazing. I’m excited to get this thing going and to recruit more good players that make me look good as a coach. (laugh)”
New and notes from practice:
Freshman Oluwole Betiku is playing the predator linebacker position behind Porter Gustin and ahead of Connor Murphy. On playing that position Betiku said, “The coaches watched the tape from the spring and they do a good job of putting you in the right spot to be successful. I played the other side in the spring covering and doing certain things, but I feel I’m in the best position to win now. Us trojans, we want to win.”
Freshman running back Vaevae Malepeai broke is scapula during Monday’s scrimmage and is expected to be out six to eight weeks.
Miami freshman duo Jamel Cook and Keyshawn Young remain sidelined with injuries Wednesday. Cook did not dress with the team Monday, but continued to rehab with trainers at about 50-percent speed. Young showed up Monday in a sling for his left shoulder.
While freshman wide receiver Mike Pittman has been a noted performer the early part of camp, Josh Imatorbhebhe has put together a couple of good days at practice this week. Imatrorbhebhe showed off his moves in space juking two veteran defensive backs in tackling drills Monday.
Freshman cornerback Jack Jones has a Colgate smile that bites. Jones has been involved in several dust ups in practice — the latest coming against wide receiver Isaac Whitney. Jones may not be the biggest player out there, but he doesn’t back down from anyone.
Jones has been pushed around some by the bigger receivers, but he has also proven to be one of the better open field tacklers at cornerback for USC.
Stevie Tui’Kolovatu got some first team reps in Monday’s scrimmage with Josh Fatu. While USC’s 2-4-5 defense is considered a pass defense, those bog bodies help up well against the run.
Not too long after the first team session Monday, former defensive line assistant Pete Jenkins is heard yelling at Josh Fatu to stop playing soft.
Offensive tackles E.J. Price and Nathan Smith have seen more reps this week as Chuma Edoga and Chad Wheeler have been limited by injuries. Smith continues to play right tackle in competition with Clayton Johnson, while Price is playing the left side in competition with Roy Hemsley.