USC Football: What You Need to Know About Trojans' Coaching Staff Under Sark

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistDecember 23, 2013

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 03:  Steve Sarkisian speaks at a press conference introducing him as the new USC  head football coach at the John McKay Center at the University of Southern California on December 3, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The coaching situation at USC is fluid in the wake of Steve Sarkisian's appointment as head coach. Much is already known, and much is still up in the air, though each day trudges us closer to establishing a clear picture.

Let's start with the known. According to Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times, offensive coordinator Clay Helton will be retained in the same position next year. Helton coached the team to a 45-20 victory over Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday, becoming USC's third head coach of the 2013 season.

Wide receivers coach and recruiting specialist Tee Martin, who has done an outstanding job since arriving in SoCal two years ago, will also be back. Between Martin and Helton, a lot of the brain trust behind USC's 2013 offense—which looked great at the end of the season but generally struggled—will remain in place.

That might at first seem kind of curious, but it's not. Sarkisian himself is an offensive-minded coach, and he is likely to implement some of his own stuff. Shoehorning "his guys" into positions where they don't belong would run the risk of disjointing the players' development, if not forcing some of them to transfer schools entirely.

Now, at least there can be a shred of continuity.

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 21:  Interim coach Clay Helton of the USC Trojans holds the championship trophy after his team defeated the Fresno State Bulldogs 45-20 to win the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium on December 21, 2013 in Las Vegas,
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Around Helton and Martin, who specialize in quarterbacks and receivers, will be one of three coaches that Sarkisian has already brought along from Washington: Johnny Nansen. Nansen served a variety of roles since joining the Huskies in 2008, most extensively special teams coach, defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator.

In 2013, though, Nansen added the title of running backs coach, which could make him important at USC, where blue-chip running backs have oddly struggled to develop the past few years. Under Nansen's guidance this past season, Washington junior Bishop Sankey rushed for 1,775 yards and was named a second-team AP All-American.

Sarkisian also brought in a couple of defensive positional coaches from his staff at Washington. New secondary coach Keith Heyward is familiar with the Pac-12, having held that title with the Huskies since 2012 and with Oregon State from 2008-2011. Washington finished No. 6 nationally with 5.8 yards allowed per passing attempt this season—tied for that ranking with Iowa, Wisconsin and, of course, USC.

New linebackers coach Peter Sirmon is a familiar face and name to even younger football fans, who might remember his time playing with the Tennessee Titans in the mid-2000s. He coached linebackers at University of Tennessee in 2011 before joining Washington in the same role in 2012 and coaching up young players like Shaq Thompson.

But that's where things with this staff start to get tricky. Heyward and Sirmon will hold their familiar roles coaching linebackers and defensive backs, but the rest of the defensive staff still remains in radical flux. 

Might a familiar face be coming back to town?

CORVALLIS, OR - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Ed Orgeron of the USC Trojans celebrates with his team after they beat the Oregon State Beavers at Reser Stadium on November 1, 2013 in Corvallis, Oregon. USC won the game 31-14. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

When Sarkisian was first announced as USC head coach—before Boise State's Chris Petersen was announced as his successor in Seattle—Huskies defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox was a brief favorite to replace him. That, however, was quickly shot down when Dave Mahler of KJR radio reported that Wilcox would be following Sark to USC and taking over the Trojans defense.

Now, that doesn't look like such a sure thing. Petersen reportedly brought his defensive coordinator, Pete Kwiatkowski, to Washington, leaving Wilcox out of a current job, but the coach still hasn't been officially announced as a member of the USC staff. Why?

According to Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News, Wilcox's buyout at Washington is creating a log jam for the signing. "Before Wilcox can make a seamless transition to USC, the Trojans must resolve his $1 million buyout at Washington," Wolf writes. "USC does not want to pay the full amount and wants the Huskies to agree to a settlement."

Though Wilcox has done a fantastic job at Washington, succeeding with average talent and becoming one of the hottest assistant coaches in the country, it's not like USC needs to make wholesale defensive changes. The Trojans thrived on that side of the ball under first-year coordinator Clancy Pendergast this season, finishing with the sixth-best defense in America, according to Football Outsiders' final F/+ rankings.

Further complicating things is a poll from the Daily News, asking USC fans—in an admittedly flawed sample—whether or not Pendergast should remain at his post next season. Eighty-seven percent answered "Yes."

Is Wilcox still the guy?

Somehow, that's just the start of the defensive discord. Sarkisian also wanted to bring defensive line coach and recruiting maven Tosh Lupoi to Los Angeles with him, but Lupoi might have just landed in some trouble with the NCAA.

According to Klein, Lupoi has been accused of paying for the private tutoring of a former Washington recruit, prompting an NCAA investigation into improper conduct. Whether found innocent or guilty, that would make Lupoi a very complicated hire at USC. Especially given the Trojans' recent history with the NCAA, it's hard to imagine them touching him and getting wounded in the crossfire.

That puts USC's staff in need of a defensive line coach/recruiting specialist. Sound like anyone you know? Anyone who, perhaps, fed his team cookies en route to a 6-2 record this regular season, salvaging the year in the wake of Lane Kiffin's departure?

Yup. Per Tom Fornelli of CBS Sports, Sarkisian said in a radio interview on Sunday that he will make one last pitch at Ed Orgeron, imploring him to swallow his pride and return to the USC sidelines. Orgeron resigned in a fit of rage when Sarkisian was hired, believing himself to have done enough to earn the job full-time after serving as interim head coach this season. He has scant been heard from since.

These are the final dominoes that still need to fall in Southern California. For all we currently know about Sarkisian's staff, there are still some very important developments to be finished and decisions to be made.

But National Signing Day is sneaking up fast. Sarkisian and athletic director Pat Haden need to sort quickly through these options and come to a conclusion. Otherwise, the uncertainty might scare off more than a couple USC targets.


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