Breaking Down USC's New Coaching Staff
Steve Sarkisian has almost finished assembling a new coaching staff at USC, aside from the defensive line coach and special teams coach positions. Save for wide receivers coach Tee Martin and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Clay Helton, Sarkisian has essentially cleaned house at USC.
On Monday night, the university announced three new hires, per the team's official Twitter account, in defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo and offensive line coach Tim Drevno. Wilcox and Tuiasosopo coached under Sarkisian at Washington, and Drevno comes to the college ranks from the NFL, leaving the San Francisco 49ers.
As they begin their first season at USC, let's take a look at the new hires and what they bring to the table.
Defensive Coordinator Justin Wilcox
Justin Wilcox took over the Huskies defense in 2011, and drastic changes to its productivity came with it. He inherited a Washington defense that had given up an average of 35.9 points a game and 453.3 yards, ranking the Huskies 108th and 106th, respectively, out of 120 teams. From that, he remolded the defense into one that gave up just 23.5 points and 367.25 a game over the past two regular seasons.
In 2013, Washington's defense ranked 30th in points given up and 46th in yards surrendered, and in its recent Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl victory, it only gave up one touchdown three field goals.
Wilcox has a proven ability to come in and develop a scheme that works, and with the talent USC has, he should be able to replicate that success in Troy. He knows Sarkisian very well, having coached with him at UW, and he knows his way around a 3-4 scheme.
To be sure, Sarkisian had a gem of a defensive coordinator in Clancy Pendergast, so the decision to let him go was quite puzzling.
Outside of Arizona State, Notre Dame and UCLA—which, arguably, says a lot in and of itself about Pendergast's ability to scheme against a mobile quarterback—Pendergast turned a lifeless USC defense into one of the strongest in the Pac-12. His defense gave up 21.2 points a game and 334.9 yards, down from Monte Kiffin's 24.3 and 394.0 figures in 2012.
Sarkisian made it clear that he wanted a 3-4 scheme, which could be why Pendergast—who utilizes a 5-2 scheme—could have been let go, despite having two years left on his contract. But the schemes are so similar that it might not have even made a difference in the long run. The players loved Pendergast, and having to adjust to a new coach could take time.
Pendergast also has never really taken to recruiting, where Wilcox is very skilled at it. That also could have played into the final decision.
Regardless, USC seems to be trading one gem for another.
Tight Ends Coach Marques Tuiasosopo
Update: According to Scott Wolf of the LA Daily news, Tuiasosopo has been named the associate head coach by Steve Sarkisian.
Tuiasosopo will inherit two NFL-caliber tight ends in Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, but he will face a challenge in reloading the Trojans' thin tight end corps.
New Washington coach Chris Petersen wanted Tuiasosopo on his staff, but he elected to follow Sarkisian to USC instead.
The University of Washington graduate was the Huskies quarterbacks coach last season, and as a college quarterback, he set career total-offense records with UW from 1997-2000.
As far as recruiting is concerned, it should be easy for him to sell targets on the realistic possibility of early playing time. Furthermore, his Polynesian heritage can be a selling point for recruits of other positions, much like beloved Trojan and former running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu was.
Offensive Line Coach Tim Drevno
Sarkisian poached former San Francisco 49ers' offensive line coach Tim Drevno from the professional ranks. Drevno had coached with Jim Harbaugh essentially his entire career, working as the offensive coordinator with him at the University of San Diego, the tight ends coach at Stanford and the offensive line coach with the 49ers.
The 49ers had the third-best running game in the NFL in 2013, so strong run blocking is clearly something San Francisco touted. USC's offensive line has been mediocre over the past three seasons, despite having two position coaches in 2013.
Of all the coaching changes, this one makes the most sense. The Trojans' O-line effort has been unacceptably poor and inconsistent, and if Sarkisian is to return USC to its winning days, a better offensive line is pivotal to that. Its success begins with new guidance.
Aside from proven skill at the task, Drevno is from Southern California and knows the landscape well. He should be able to recruit talented young offensive linemen and develop them into a formidable front line.
Secondary Coach Keith Heyward
Sarkisian is bringing Keith Heyward with him from Washington to guide USC's secondary. Clancy Pendergast held this responsibility while he was the defensive coordinator, and while the unit did improve, it was still USC's weakest defensive position.
How he recruits at this position will be especially important, as depth has been a reason USC's secondary has underachieved.
Queue Heyward, who has worked in the Pac-12 for six years, serving as the secondary coach at Oregon State from 2008-2011 and for the past two seasons at UW. Heyward's defensive backs allowed just 5.8 yards per pass attempt in 2013, tied for sixth in the nation with—interestingly enough—USC, among other schools.
USC's corners and safeties have been through a number of coaches in the past few years, but aside from Pendergast, Heyward is poised to be the best hire yet for this position.
The combination of Heyward and Wilcox is especially great for the Trojans, as the two of them provided UW with one of the best passing defenses in the country. In 2013, only Oregon was credited with more passes defended, and last year, the Huskies finished second in the Pac-12 in passing defense.
Assistant Coach Johnny Nansen
Johnny Nansen has spent the past five years with Sarkisian at UW, fullfilling various assistant coaching roles. Most recently, he coached the running backs.
Under his coaching, the Huskies' star running back Bishop Sankey had 3,496 rushing yards and 37 touchdowns in his career.
Nansen is quite popular in the Southern California area, having recruited a number of LA's most talented athletes over the years.
Tommie Robinson had done an excellent job with USC's stable in just one season, unleashing Buck Allen onto the college football world. Like the hire of Justin Wilcox, this is another puzzling one, because the Trojans had a very good coach on the roster already.
USC has struggled to develop running backs since the days of Reggie Bush, but Robinson proved in one season that he could do it. Nansen, too, has a proven record of developing talent, so his preexisting relationship with Sarkisian likely worked in his favor.
Linebackers Coach Peter Sirmon
Peter Sirmon will fill the same role at USC that he filled at Washington—that of the linebackers coach. He worked with the linebackers for the past two years there, and he coached at Oregon in 2009, helping guide the Ducks to a Rose Bowl berth. Before that, he spent time as a linebacker with the Tennessee Titans in the early 2000s.
If nothing else, Sirmon's presence just adds more familiarity for Sarkisian as he begins his tenure at USC.
These six new hires coupled with retaining Tee Martin and Clay Helton give the Trojans eight assistant coaches so far under Sarkisian. Recently, special teams coach John Baxter was informed he would not be retained, much to the ire of Trojan fans.
Lastly, USC is still looking for a defensive line coach, and a certain former interim head coach is the popular choice amongst Trojan fans. But would Ed Orgeron come back to USC, after storming out upon learning that he hadn't been promoted to head coach?
Well, it's college football; stranger things have happened.