Joining the USC staff wasn’t exactly the plan when Hayes Pullard’s NFL career came to a close last August. But with the connections he’d made in the Los Angeles area and as a former Trojan, the pieces came together naturally.
For the past five years, Pullard–a former Crenshaw High School standout–has hosted a free youth football camp in the Los Angeles area. Pullard started the camps as a tribute to his late father, who passed away while Pullard was in high school. The 2018 edition of the camp drew 500 participants and Pullard made connections with many of them.
“Every year, kids would reach out throughout the year and say, ‘What you said is working–this new move you taught me is working,’ or, ‘You taught me a trick in how to study for a test and it worked,'” Pullard said. “To hear all that was empowering.”
Pullard would also reach out, as he kept in contact with USC head coach Clay Helton–offering supportive messages on game days. And as Pullard sat in his garage following a workout one day–out of the NFL and trying to figure out what his next passion was–he received a direct message from a young man asking if Pullard would serve as his coach. That planted a seed for Pullard, who saw the next step for himself.
“I asked him how he’d like it if I was his coach in four years, at a university,” Pullard said. “That’s when I reached out to Clay.”
Pullard said the initial conversation with Helton was asking if there would be a role as a Quality Control Assistant, or anything where he would be able to learn from the coaches or help players in “any way, form or fashion.” Pullard said Helton was receptive to the idea.
On June 1, Pullard officially started at USC as a Defensive Quality Control Analyst. The job limits the on-field impact he can have, as he is unable to offer coaching to players in terms of X’s and O’s. But it allows him plenty of room to pursue his true passion of helping others succeed in life through football.
“Going into coaching is a tough profession,” Pullard said. “It’s something you have to want to do. You can’t just do it as a job. You have to invest the time. I hear Clay say it all the time–you have the opportunity to adopt 100 more kids, and that’s what you have to be willing to do. Your family is 10 times bigger when you walk into that building, and I want to help these guys attain their goals, whether it’s on the football field or in any direction.”
As an analyst, Pullard will work hand-in-hand with the defensive staff, helping defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and crew break down opponent film and provide any assistance they need. He can be present on the practice field, in meetings and at games, but can’t offer any football coaching to the players. He’s also starting a position he’s never held before, so it’ll be interesting as he discovers where the experience he does have fits into his role, and where he’ll need to learn on the job and adapt.
“I’m all hands on deck,” Pullard said. “If the coaches need help with film, if a player needs help motivationally–I can help him because I was in his shoes. If he needs tutoring, I can educate him on the path I went through when I was in college. I can help in different aspects of recruiting as much as I can, falling under NCAA restrictions. I’m here for whatever is needed, how I can help the players and how I can help the coaches. At the end of the day, I want to be able to soak in as much as I can from them…I live on the Three Ls: Listen, Learn and Lead”
Pullard finished his USC career as a four-year starter and was a tackling machine–his 377 tackles are the sixth-most in USC history. He was the first Trojan since the late 70’s to lead the team in tackles in three seasons. And while he became a team leader during his later seasons, it wasn’t exactly easy to guess those would be the results during his true freshman year in 2010.
“As a freshman, I was sixth on the depth chart,” Pullard said. “I couldn’t even see the screen at the front of the room with all those guys ahead of me.”
But Pullard said the path he had to take is a message he can share with players at USC.
“I don’t know what to tell a kid besides, ‘You have to work hard,'” Pullard said. “You have to develop a mature mindset at an early age. It’s hard for an 18, 19-year old to be able to fathom everything hitting them at one time–football, academics, practices, games. But pressure bursts pipes and makes diamonds and I’m not going to allow any burst pipes.”
USC has long looked for former Trojans to bring back in various roles related to football. It doesn’t always play out perfectly, but for this role, Pullard said his history as a Trojan makes him uniquely qualified.
“I’ve lived it, I’ve breathed it, I’ve walked it, I’ve run it,” Pullard said. “What better person can there be for the job? When you’re talking about a culture and a school that wants to win national championships, I feel like we could have won it [in 2011]. And I’ve been on the losing side. I’ve had to go through coaching changes, new position coaches, a new head coach in the middle of the year, a new head coach for a bowl game. If a conversation comes up about anything, I can talk about it because I’ve been through it. That’s something I’m able to bring to the table and not even have to coach X’s and O’s, because you have an elite staff that can do that.”
The new USC defensive staff–Orlando, safeties coach Craig Naivar, cornerbacks coach Donte Williams and defensive line coach Vic So’oto–has impressed everybody early on in their USC tenures, and Pullard is no exception.
“When they talk ball, they talk ball,” Pullard said. “I thought I knew ball…I always had to be the smartest and hardest worker in the room. Going to the NFL and now coming back to college and hearing them talk, and how savvy they are, I have to go get the pen and the notebook.”
Pullard, like fellow former USC linebacker-turned QC Analyst Chris Claiborne, seems to have a perfect mix of analytic thinking combined with the ability to turn up the intensity whenever the moment calls for it. That mixes well with this new staff.
“They get after it every single day,” Pullard said. “It’s motivating. It’s not lining up next to someone on the field next to someone and trying to win, but now it’s learning ball to the point where you can teach it and win games with X’s and O’s. Seeing that opposite side of football is fun. I can’t wait to get into meetings rooms with them, when we’re able to get together and connect. I feel like it’ll be a full speed train.”
Pullard starts his second stint with the Trojans at a very interesting time, as USC is still finalizing plans to work the players back onto campus amidst the coronavirus pandemic, and student-athletes at USC and across the country are speaking up about issues central to the George Floyd protests. USC has allowed players to express their thoughts in team meetings and it has had a positive effect, even on someone brand new to the current state of the program, as Pullard is.
“At the end of the day, they’re handling this like mature men and I give them all the credit in the world,” Pullard said. “To see them come together is an eye-opener and there’s a fire rising within this team. It’s powerful.”