Spring football Q&A: USC defensive coordinator Rocky Seto

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

New USC defensive coordinator Rocky Seto is a fast-rising coach at 33. At his present trajectory, he'll get his own program to run before he turns 40.

At which point, the second-generation Japanese American will put a completely new face onto a head coaching position, something one of his mentors, Norm Chow, for whatever reason, wasn't able to do.

While the Trojans defense still belongs to Pete Carroll, who calls the signals, Seto, who's previously coached linebackers and the secondary, will get ample opportunities to leave his mark as the Trojans reload with just three starters back.

USC gets started Saturday, so it seemed like a good time to check in.

You've been at USC a long time -- you never left after arriving as a walk-on in 1997 -- how different is the football program since you played?

Rocky Seto: I walked under John Robinson and then played my senior year for Coach [Paul] Hackett. Then I volunteered under Coach Hackett. Coach Carroll came in a couple of years after that. Obviously, our ability to produce more -- we've been more effective, no doubt about that. But each coach was very different. Coach Carroll has definitely brought in a sense of competitiveness that separates us, so to speak. It's pretty exciting to see the transition of the program. I feel very fortunate and blessed to have been part of three coaching staffs.

Lots of folks thought Carroll was a strange hire and were skeptical in 2001: What was your first thought when you learned he'd take over for Hackett?

RS: It was an interesting time. I was confused. I was volunteering and barely getting into the business. I'd gotten into the doctorate program in physical therapy here and instead of doing that I went into coaching. I was like, 'Oh my goodness. What does God have planned for me?' When [Carroll] came in and when I met him, it was really exciting. I quickly learned that he sees himself as a mentor. That's what he's done for me. God put him into my life and he's helped me grow as a coach from day one. I'm definitely just a by-product of his leadership.

When did you have a pretty good idea Carroll would be successful?

RS: Right when I saw how he engaged the players and interacted with the coaches. Really, he hasn't changed from when he was hired initially in 2001. Even with all the accolades and things he's been able to accomplish, he's remained humble and continued to avail himself to even more people, if you could imagine that. He's so busy but he's really gifted and generous with so may causes. He signs as many autographs as he can and takes as many pictures as he can. I could tell that he was different in that way.

You've turned down good jobs - Buffalo Bills, Washington defensive coordinator -- what keeps you at USC?

RS: Washington was a hard decision because my wife is from Seattle. We have a lot of family and friends up there, so that was really intriguing. We prayed about it as a couple. We called Coach Sarkisian and Coach Carroll on a Tuesday morning -- the night before we were headed to Washington -- and then it dawned on us, both of us, that we are so happy here. Our church situation, our family situation, that took priority first. That's why we decided to stay. We had no idea what was going to happen, what unfolded the next couple of weeks with the defensive coordinator position opening up. We were really thrilled when it happened.

There aren't many Japanese-American football coaches: Have you seen any signs that your success might be inspiring Asian kids to play football?

RS: Maybe. You're right. It is kind of a rarity. More organizations have asked me to come out and share my story, share my testimony. Other coaches, who are Asian-American, people in this world of sports, have contacted me, either congratulated me or kind of wanted to know my thoughts. I feel honored and privileged that people would even call me. I don't know about the playing realm, but definitely more in the coaching, this side of it.

So much has been written about the lack of African-American head coaches: Do you worry that looking, for the lack of a better term, 'different' than most football coaches might make it harder to get a head coaching job?

RS: No. Never. I've never worried about that. I never worried about becoming a defensive coordinator, either. This is something that God set up for me. He's opened up so many doors with the right people and just continued to advance me. I've never worried about that. If it happens, I will definitely embrace that opportunity. That's something we work on: The principal of not worrying, of focusing on what we can control. All I want to do is focus in on this opportunity and do as well as I can.

What are the key lessons you've learned from Pete Carroll?

RS: I've learned the type of leader he is. He's a leader in the sense that he likes to develop people. I'm a by-product of his mentorship. Look at it: he was a terrific mentor to Steve Sarkisian, Lane Kiffin, Nick Holt, Ed Orgeron, DeWayne Walker -- so many guys who were underneath him became head coaches. That's a big legacy if you really think about it. With all the winning he's done, I don't know if that gets as much attention as it should. It's a huge, huge part of his coaching style.

What did he tell you about what he wanted from you as the new defensive coordinator, seeing that Carroll still calls the defensive signals?

RS: He and I have worked closely together for the last eight years, so I see it definitely moving along in that way, working side-by-side with him, helping him organize the defense, having input into the defense and seeing where we can continue to improve. He's the head coach. He's in charge of the offense, defense and special teams. I'd like to think I can serve him as well as I can in any way he asks me to get it done. He's asked me to do a lot and that feels like a privilege.

How might your contribution change the defense?

RS: I will definitely have more opportunities to address the defense and have more of a global influence. In terms of schematics, it will definitely be a conglomeration of he and I and all the defensive staff. We'll see what happens. We're always evolving. We're not the same defense we were in 2001 when we started out. We run into different styles of offense, different problems to solve.

Who are you expecting to step up this spring?

RS: We lost a lot of defensive linemen and linebackers [six of the front seven, in fact]. But we really are excited about the young guys we have to fill those roles. So the defensive line and linebacking corps are definitely guys who will have elevated roles.

With Taylor Mays and Josh Pinkard as well as Shareece Wright back, how good can your secondary be?

RS: The way we define success for players is maximizing ourselves. These guys are talented. They know how to play football. They are tough and physical and really gifted. We want to see how far they can take it. Our goal is to eliminate all the distractions and see how far they can take it.

Can this defense approach what last year's unit did?

RS: It kind of goes to the same line of thinking. Last year was an awesome year; we celebrated it. It was a tremendous effort by the players and staff. But last year has no bearing on this year at all. I've been asked that before and I've thought about i
t. But focusing on that is not helping us at all. I think we've got a chance to be pretty good as long as we maximize ourselves.