USC responding well to Clancy Pendergast's return

Before USC opened spring practice on March 8, the bulk of what new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast knew about the Trojans' personnel came from coach Clay Helton. Pendergast saw the Trojans play on TV last season and there are players left from when he was the coordinator in 2013, but he chose not to study last season's film after agreeing to return.

Pendergast's rationale was simple: "Clean slate," he said.

During the interview process, he detailed to Helton how he envisioned the defense -- not much different than how he did things before -- and the two eventually sat down with the rest of the defensive coaching staff to slot which players belonged where.

"I kind of mentioned, knowing his system from two years ago and being a part of it, kind of where I felt each person fit," Helton said. "We tried to put guys in initial spots and let it roll.

"I thought it was smart by him to come in, give everybody a clean slate, let everybody compete and see who produces the most and the best player plays, just like always here at USC."

With the understanding that players rarely say anything derogatory about a coach, new or otherwise, there does seem to be a genuine sense of excitement about the direction the defense is going under Pendergast's watch.

"Love the way he coaches. I'm loving the defense so far," sophomore Porter Gustin said. "Really aggressive, just letting us play. Not having to think too much, just going at it."

For Gustin, who was listed at outside linebacker last season and is now at defensive end, the most obvious difference is the increased amount of blitzing he's being called on to do. He plays closer to the line of scrimmage, has less responsibility in coverage and more against the run.

Internally, the Trojans refer to Gustin's role as a 'predator.' Pendergast calls it a ‘hybrid' linebacker/defensive end role that carries flexibility and is also using Uchenna Nwosu and Jabari Ruffin in a similar capacity.

Of the guys who are getting the bulk of the reps in practice, Pendergast estimated there was only about 15 starts between them. And with cornerback Adoree' Jackson spending the spring focusing on track, linebacker Cameron Smith rehabbing a knee injury and safety Chris Hawkins out after ankle surgery, there are more reps to go around for the players who will likely be counted on to provide depth.