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Musings from Arledge: Defensive Questions, UCLA Recruiting, and Oregon

We talked last week in Musings about the forecast for the Trojans offense. Executive summary: better, may not pick up a third and short on the ground all year, but will move the ball, the receivers won’t be crashing into one another, and the O will score more than 14 against Cal.

Defensively, there are more question marks. I love this unit up front. Tufele, Marlon, Pili, Rector, and Jackson – the freakish freshman who already looks like an NFL player – give you five very good players upfront. (Trivia note: the Gaston song from Beauty and the Beast is loosely based on a song that the villagers used to sing about Drake Jackson when he was growing up.) If USC can get any kind of pass rush from Echols or one of the other smaller end players – are we still using the term “Predator”? – this defensive front can be very good.

And it probably needs to be, because I’m not yet sold on the groups behind it yet. Yogi Roth was talking at the Spring Showcase about the tremendous depth at linebacker. I don’t see it yet. EA hasn’t proven himself a star yet, but I’m willing to bet the mortgage payment that he will be based on his limited time last year. But outside of him and Solo – who we haven’t seen healthy yet – I don’t see anybody who looks like the 2008 group or, frankly, like a future NFL starter. I see very little impressive production here, and I don’t see any of these remaining linebackers with 5-star tools at this point.

I’ve been accused of being overly critical of John Houston in the past, so let me explain my concerns there. I like Houston. I like his football IQ and his athleticism. I like what we’re hearing about his leadership. I just think he’s playing out of position. I think he was out of position last year at Will, and I think he’s even more out of position this year at Mike. I don’t know what Houston could have done had he been made an edge player. With his ranginess and athleticism, I think he could have been formidable. But the guy is not a Mike linebacker, because he simply isn’t big enough or physical enough.

Nick Saban has a saying: ”Big guys beat up small guys.” John Houston is one of the small guys, and I think he plays small. That is, he doesn’t play bigger than his size. He’s not hammering offensive linemen like Scott Ross or knifing through seams to blow up plays in the backfield like Lofa Tatupu. He plays tall and high, looks over the top of blockers, gives ground, and makes plays sideline-to-sideline, often well downfield from the line of scrimmage. He couldn’t play inside linebacker for Nick Saban. He just doesn’t have the tool set. I don’t understand why Clancy Pendergast has insisted on playing him there. But let’s be clear: if he’s playing Mike, that defensive line better dominate the middle of opponents’ offensive lines. And it might; those guys are big and good. If they do, Houston can be successful inside in his new role. But if the DT’s don’t dominate and guards and centers are getting their bodies on Houston, this defense will be a mess against the running game.  

And there is a lot of physical football on the schedule. ND, Washington, and Utah will bring it; we know that. I think Oregon will as well. BYU is usually very physical, especially at home. And so is Fresno State, for reasons I talked about last week. 

And after EA and Houston, what does USC have at linebacker? Guys with some potential who haven’t done much, it seems to me. Great depth, Yogi? Hmmm. I don’t see what you see.

I see a ton of talent in the secondary. But I see question marks associated with all of it. The safeties are excellent if they stay healthy. I love Talanoa Hufanga, and I think Pola-Mao is also a rising star. The corners have talent and a much better position coach. There are also a lot of bodies coming in, and I suspect there will be a player or two who can contribute immediately. I wouldn’t be surprised if the back four play pretty well, especially if the front line dominates the way I think they can..and should. But it’s hard to feel confident with this secondary group at this point, because I’m not sure the safeties will stay healthy, there is little depth, and there isn’t much historical production. Lots of talent. Lots of upside. Lots of question marks.

More fundamentally, I’m skeptical that this off-season’s buzz word – simplify – is really the solution to the struggles on defense. I mentioned in a recent podcast that I went back and watched the first quarter of the UCLA game just to remind myself what was going on. My conclusion was that the players didn’t look confused; they just looked like they didn’t play fundamentally sound and didn’t match the physicality of their opponents.

Let’s look at UCLA’s first two drives.

Go to the 7:32 mark. Here, UCLA is in third and long. The play breaks down not because the defense is complicated; actually, the scheme and play call work beautifully. USC’s nickel back gets an open run at Wilton Speight, a QB statue, from the backside, and simply blows the play. Speight then throws it up for grabs to Wilson downfield.

Go to the 10:35 mark for another third and long. Trips to the top of the screen. USC’s corner at the top of the screen is lined up 7 yards off the line of scrimmage. (Because he’s off the flanker, he’s actually starting with a 9-yard cushion over the outside receiver.) The TV angle doesn’t give us a great view of the secondary. But there are two real possibilities. Either (as I suspect) the corner at the top of the screen was in man coverage and allowed the outside receiver to run past him despite the 9-yard cushion (probably because he bit on a move near the first down marker and his eyes were on the QB) or USC was in a zone coverage and the same corner or possibly the safety to that side didn’t keep their deep responsibility on that side of the field. Without having better film and knowing the play call, I’ll reserve judgment. But either way, there isn’t anything confusing about the outside receiver running a go route. This was just bad football.

Go to the 15:50 mark where Joshua Kelley breaks a long run (the first of many). I don’t think the problem here is an overly complicated defensive scheme. UCLA continued to use their unbalanced line and two TE set plus an H-back/wing set. What do we see? (1) The defensive tackle on the play side plays high, plays soft, and gets turned in by the TE. (2) The OLB on the play side comes up aggressively to contain but he comes up too far and wide upfield and the pulling guard walls him off (with a nice little hold that doesn’t get called), creating a sizeable crease between him and the DT. Pause it at the 15:52 mark and you’ll see what I mean. (Had he turned inside and cut that pulling guard, he probably blows up the entire play and the corner on that side or an ILB makes the play for no gain. In fact, that’s almost exactly what happens on the very next play when Kelly runs the same play near the goalline.) (3) The ILB on the play side gets smashed by the split end. (I don’t know whether this is a TE or a big WR as I don’t know UCLA’s roster that well. But he dominates Cam Smith on the play.) (4) The ILB on the backside drifts toward the line of scrimmage and gets caught up in the debris where he can’t make a play. He may not have had a chance anyway. But to make a play he either needs to run to open grass (there isn’t any) or he needs to run parallel to the line of scrimmage, flatten across the face of blockers, keep his feet moving when he sees three offensive linemen pull to the right to try to stay over the top of all the bodies. So now we’re left with a gaping hole and a corner versus two pulling linemen and a running back. That’s usually not a recipe for success. (5) The corner’s only chance is to attack the line of scrimmage as soon as he sees the crack block (which he should call to Cam as soon as he sees it) from the split end and he should also cut the pulling linemen. He certainly can’t take them on high. But the corner does none of these things. He doesn’t come up aggressively when he sees the crack block, and he has no intention of getting anywhere near those pulling linemen, so he just backpedals himself right out of the play.

What went wrong? Was the scheme too complicated? I doubt it. It looks to me like five different guys all blow their assignments to varying degrees. And it also looks like Pendergast didn’t prepare and certainly didn’t adjust to UCLA’s unbalanced line, two TE set power football run game. Wrong run fit defensive alignments is not due to complexity, let’s call that preparation and coaching.

Clancy Pendergast has coached some very good defenses. His defense had some very good games even last year. He’s led the conference in total defense on multiple occasions. He’s coordinated a Super Bowl team. The guy has forgotten more about football than I’ll ever know. But let’s be blunt about something: he has put some soft, fundamentally unsound defenses on the field over the last couple of years. He now has better position coaches for the secondary and the defensive line. I suspect that will help. But we need more – a lot more – from the guy at the top of the defensive good chain if USC is going to turn this thing around.   

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There are some programs – cough, cough – that seem to throw highly ranked recruits on the field and try to win without any regard for strength and conditioning, high-quality schemes, competent position coaches, or really anything else. But I don’t want to talk about those teams right now.

Because I’m curious if anybody has noticed that Chip Kelly seems determined to do exactly the opposite: recruit a bunch of guys that nobody else thinks are worth anything and see if schemes and forward-thinking conditioning theories are enough to ensure success. When I look at Kelly’s last recruiting class, it reminds me of the scene from Major League when horrible owner Rachel Phelps shocks her staff with a list of the players being invited to spring training that year.

“Chip, this guy here is dead.”

“Cross him off, then.”

Does Chip think if he loses nine games again that he gets to move the football team to Florida?

I assumed that Chip won with two and three-star players at Oregon because he couldn’t recruit higher-ranked guys and that he’d change his plan once he got at a higher-profile program. But maybe that’s not it. Maybe he genuinely believes that he knows more than every other coach and pundit.

What if he’s right? How depressing would that be?

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I know USC has bigger rivals in the conference. But is it okay to hate Oregon more than any other program? Am I allowed to do that? Because it feels right. A program built on video games in the locker room and fancy uniforms, all of which – every freakin’ one of which – is comically ugly? And maybe, I suspect, also built on SEC levels of walking-around cash? It’s just awful. There’s nothing redeeming about that program. I’ve heard Oregon was founded by Lavrentiy Beria. Or Kim Jong-il. One of them.

I understand when players choose Alabama or Ohio State. Over the last few years, you’ll be getting some of the best coaching in college football history. I understand choosing Stanford, Notre Dame, Michigan, or UCLA over USC. I don’t like it, but I think a kid should be permitted to make such a choice without being forcibly admitted to a psychiatric institution. But Oregon? It’s just not okay. If a player has offers from USC, Stanford, and UCLA and chooses Oregon….

Enough of that. I’m sure there are some fine Oregon alums out there, and I don’t want to offend them any more than I already have. I say I’m sure there are fine Oregon alums. I should note that I’ve never actually met a fine Oregon alum. Come to think of it, I’ve never even heard a rumor of one. But I’m sure one exists, and I don’t want to ruin his day any more than it’s already been ruined by his lifelong association with Oregon Ducks, who make the crowd surrounding the Thunderdome seem cultured and intelligent by comparison.  



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Chris Arledge

Chris Arledge is a graduate of USC’s Gould School of Law and is the co-founder and managing partner of an intellectual property law firm. Chris’s forgettable football career started at Elsinore High School, where his Tigers defeated Kyle Wachholtz’s Norco squad for the league title (Bring on Brad Otton’s team, too!), and ended at William Jewell College, where Chris was a team captain and an all-conference defensive back.


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