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Vic So’oto on being open, honest, and violent

USC defensive line coach Vic So’oto spoke Tuesday morning about the violence he wants to see from his players, the hate-love dynamic he expects to see, and the travesty concerning California prospects leaving the state.

So’oto continued the defensive theme of bringing aggression and violence to the USC defense this season, as he mentioned the words “violent” or violence” ten times during his introductory press conference. He’s also another defensive coach truly passionate about recruiting, and it’s tough to doubt the impact he’ll have there for USC, as his honesty and vision for what he expects from his players should go a long way with prospects.

So’oto on working with this defensive line:
“The defensive line are my guys. I told my wife, ‘They’re going to hate me before they like me.’ And right now, we’re kind of going through that whole process. But we’re excited.

I think it’s just being uncomfortable. Every day for me is to make them be uncomfortable—not uncomfortable in a bad way, it’s uncomfortable in, this is what the greats do. If you want to take your game to the next level, this is where you have to go every single day. And it’s something that just doesn’t relent. There’s some hatred, so to speak, or pushback, but once they buy in and see what happens Saturdays in April, and then Saturdays in September, it’s like ‘Oh, I get it. It makes sense.’ And that’s when the bond is really built, when you take them through that process over and over and over every day.

Specific example, one of the first guys I sat down with was Jay Tufele and he had some issues academically. We had worked through that and pushed him every day. I text the guys every day. Every morning I wake up and I text them. We have a group thread and I send them messages on the topic of the day or things we have to get through throughout the day. But then just hearing it every single time we talk, he’s hearing about academics. He’s hearing about academics when he’s sitting down to eat, when he’s up working out, when he’s running conditioning drills, he’s hearing it. And to his credit, he’s bought in quickly and he’s just taken off. He’s done a complete 180.”

“We came out here on our interview with my wife. I bring her because she can see things from different angles. Clay Helton, to his credit, was the guy who took this over as far as a boss you can get behind and fight for. Coach Orlando has been awesome. He’s cut from the same cloth, so to speak. The three other guys you’ve seen today (Orlando, Craig Naivar and Donte Williams), we’re all kind of cut from the same cloth. We believe in violence and we believe in playing football a certain way. And then talking to my parents, and with them being an hour and half away in Oceanside, Carlsbad area, they were, ‘Bring the babies home,’ basically. I have five kids, so they were ready for their grandchildren to be on the West Coast.”

On Helton during the hiring process:
“Just being real and honest. He’s a faith-based coach and our faith is big to us. What he was able to bring as far as conversations and feelings, we were just fired up, ready to go.”

On his history with Bronco Mendenhall:
“The list could go on and on. Most importantly, I would say, there’s a right way to do things, there’s a standard of doing things and every day it’s got to be to that standard. You have to hold your players to that standard. And so the whole idea of having violent practices and physical practices, it’s not mine. It’s just the way I’ve known football from getting to college. Every day is going to push you to the limit. Every day is going to push you to that dark point that Orlando talks a lot about, and then we’re going to see who can stay there. And really, that’s where the championships are. The greatest players I’ve been around are the hardest players. I’ve told a story about Charles Woodson being the last guy in Green Bay and giving me a ride back as an undrafted, rookie free agent, at 11:00 at night during training camp. That’s the kind of mindset and what I bring as far as the standards of our room. You’ve got to love football. You’ve got to love football and at some point, football is going to love you back.”

On his second-cousin, Junior Seau:
“Oh absolutely. I think anybody that has grown up Polynesian, there’s a Mount Rushmore of Polynesian football players and a lot of the guys went here. I wasn’t allowed to watch TV on Sunday, unless there was a family member on TV. So, I watched a lot of San Diego Charger games and that was always the excuse: Junior’s playing. Then post-football, seeing him mentor and bring others along, and the same with Troy [Polamalu]. I played with Troy for a little bit in Pittsburgh, and seeing his aspect as far as exiting the game and what he’s trying to do for the Polynesian people, it makes a huge impact on me and obviously this place. This is basically the pinnacle, the mecca of Polynesian sports, is to play at USC.”

On his approach to recruiting:
“Being honest and up front. We went through, as coaches, the same sort of process with getting hired, deciding whether or not USC was the place to be. And my whole thought process with recruiting is to be honest and be up front, and develop relationships, then get after it. Tell them, ‘You’re going to be pushed harder than you’ve ever been pushed. I’m going to be honest with you. But at the end of the day, you’re going to know my kids’ names, they’re going to wear your jerseys. We’re going to be family and this thing will go on past playing.’ My recruiting philosophy is really, really simple. Be honest and up front and them just tell them really what it is. I think a lot of times in this recruiting process, you can see a hear different things from different coaches, but then when you go out and watch them or talk to players who are there, it’s something completely different. That’s not me. I wear my heart on my sleeve and just go after it.”

On his recruiting pitch to someone out of state:
“One, come and see it. This is unbelievable. Two, you won’t need any coats anymore. Leave all your coats. But then the type of people we have around here and I think the product that we’re going to put on the field in the fall is going to be unbelievable. It’s going to be violent, physical. And then the opportunity to come and play in my position, because a lot of our guys are going to the NFL or graduating. This place is unique, as far as being the second-largest media place in the world and a place that everybody comes to a flocks to because of different things. Just being around here—first and foremost, just coming here and seeing this place, it’s completely different than anything you’ve ever experienced.”

On whether he has the players to find immediate success:
“Oh absolutely. You look at Virginia, we were 2-10 four years ago and we go to the Orange Bowl and leaving there, the strongest unit on the team was the defensive line. And it wasn’t guys who were the big—it wasn’t the Caleb Tremblays, it wasn’t the Jay Tufeles, Marlon Tuipulotu—it wasn’t those guys. It was just guys who bought in. As far as size and who it is, it’s more so a mindset, because everybody in this room could be violent and physical if they wanted to, and run through a guy’s face and go get the quarterback. It’s just guys having to do it over and over and over and over again is getting to that place, that’s why it’s so important, these practices coming up.”

“I haven’t really talked about last year. Last year is last year. I wasn’t here. But we’ve talked a lot about our expectations this year and going forward. I’ve watched a lot of the defense, a lot of the guys, and there’s so much potential in my room to have an amazing year. I’ve been preaching to them over and over, the difference between reality and potential is a lot of hard work, trust and violence on the football field. That is the difference. And so, taking them to that place again, day in and day out, I think will pay dividends in the fall.”

On Orlando’s defense:
“It’s very similar to the type of defense I just left, but more so the mindset of attacking and getting after it. I think that has kind of been the general theme of these past three or four interviews is we’re going to get after it. He brings an energy and Craig brings an energy and Donte brings an energy. This defense is going to be so much fun. Once these guys get playing where they don’t have to think and they can go around and smack dudes. That’s when it’s really fun.”

On how you train for both four and 3-down linemen sets:
“It’s allowing everybody to learn everything. That’s kind of been my mindset going into all my meetings these past four years. And this one is to make sure everybody knows what to do and how to do it, and then whoever can do it best is going to play. I’m very, very fair. I’m very transparent. We had guys last year that were seniors that we’re actually playing scout team at some point because it was just too soft in practice. Physicality, obviously, first and foremost. But everybody is going to know exactly what to do on every play, and that’s how you train them. It doesn’t matter who is playing where. You play end, or you play nose this time, or so and so needs a breather, you play the five-technique. It doesn’t matter the body type, really. Everybody has to understand how the defense works and then train that way, and then it’s really plug and put guys where you want them.”

On finding leaders so far:
“On the defensive line, I think Marlon has a quiet leadership about him. He just goes to town. He just goes and works and works and works. Caleb has kind of stepped into the role a little bit. Jay has stepped up a little bit. But there’s still this feeling out. Really, you don’t know as a defensive line coach, who guys are until it’s time to put the pads on. It exposes a lot once you play real football.”

On how his past history as a linebacker prepared him to coach DL:
“I actually played a lot of positions in college. I played tight end, fullback, d line, linebacker and the played linebacker in the NFL. But a lot of what I learned in college is kind of my philosophy now. I was an undersized defensive lineman—played two years there as a 4i knocking these guards back. I was 250 and in my mind I thought, every play I have to give everything I’ve got, because I’m smaller. So that same mindset has spilled over into my coaching career and I coach these guys to where their mindset is, ‘I have to give everything I’ve got every play.’ But as far as linebacker goes, we’ll have guys dropping from all over the place, so obviously the coverages and whatnot are easier to teach because I know that stuff. And knowing what it’s like to come from 3-technique or 5-technique and asked to drop and see routes, that’s a whole different world that I’m accustomed to, but opening their eyes I think goes back to my linebacker days.”

On whether he got any hits in on Graham Harrell when they were in Green Bay together:
“If I did, they were accidental. I’ve known Graham for a while. Followed his career at North Texas. Not surprised because of the person he is, the family he has, and the worker he is.”

On being the third USC defensive line coach in three years:
“When I took this job, I didn’t look at who was behind me, because it really doesn’t matter. And that’s kind of the mindset of the d-line. I don’t care what you know. This is what is going to help you be successful, because I’ve seen it and I’ve done it in the NFL. Whether there are techniques they’ve learned or not, they’re going to learn how to do what we need them to do. I’ve told them it’s a lot like being a free agent in the NFL. For these guys who are juniors and seniors, they’ve got one year to learn a new system and what a coach wants and to adapt. For me, I don’t want to be like anybody else. I’m not like any other defensive line coach. I’m just myself. I might take from a lot of other people, as far as coaching techniques and what I like. But as far as what these defensive linemen are doing, they’re going to be taught to a standard and asked to do exactly what they’re supposed to do. And the guys who do it more often are the ones that are going to see the field. I don’t really dwell on a lot of the things that have happened here before as far as defensive line coaches and defensive line play.”

On Drake Jackson:
“Unbelievable. Again, there’s a lot of potential. This guy could be one of the best to ever leave here. But again, there’s aspects of his game that we have to continue to build on, continue to develop. That goes with all our guys. We’re just in the business of developing everybody in the room.”

On what violent football means to him:
“I think you’ll see it, hear it and feel it. The oohs, the aahs, those type of things. But then the violent mindset of, ‘Anytime I put my hands on someone, he goes backward.’ Anytime. Wherever it is. Out on that practice field, anytime you put your hands on someone, he goes backward. The technique and fundamentals really build confidence in being violent. There are guys who try to go out there and do things but then they end up on their back. So my job is to give them the tools to go out there and be violent and physical. But this is what the game is. The forward pass wasn’t invented until years after football was. The roots of this game is violent, physical front play with a ball and somebody going to tackle him. And so I feel like with all this Air Raid and playing in space and all this, the true roots of this game, the only thing that’s left is defensive line, offensive line, and violent football up front. Whether the guy has the ball or not, if the guy fakes like he has it, he’s going to the ground. If he’s a sliver of grass inside the lines, he’s going to get hit. If he’s up off the ground, he’s going to get hit. And that’s the type of football I’ve been raised on, the type of football I know this place has played, and the type of football that, when you enter the Coliseum, has to happen over and over and over again, for it to go back to where it was.”

On his first contact with USC:
“Pretty funny story. I think Orlando might have his side of it. I was watching the Super Bowl and saw that there were firings here. I looked it up and saw Orlando was the coach. Our roots are kind of intermingled between Utah State and Bronco at BYU as far as schematically, so I knew it was a fit there. And honestly, I pushed the follow button on twitter, and he followed back immediately and said, ‘Hey, let’s talk after the game.’ That’s what started the whole ball rolling as far as our communication, and then the interview and offer and accepting and all that. So don’t be afraid to reach out and follow somebody.”

On his relationship with USC football history:
“There wasn’t another show in town. I don’t remember Alabama at all. I don’t remember LSU. I don’t remember Clemson. I don’t remember any of those. All I remember was USC football. I ended up going to BYU, but my heart has always been here in Southern California. Growing up in San Diego, everyone’s favorite team was USC. Seeing the landscape of recruiting right now and seeing where players are going out of the state of California is a travesty. And that’s something that is priority No. 1 in recruiting, is to get the right guys here from this state to represent USC to go out there and kick ass in the Coliseum.”

On the difficulties of preparing two different front alignments:
“A lot of it is when you’re in certain alignments in what you’re doing. Three-down is different than 4-down, a 3-technique is different than a 4i, but having the ability for them to understand this is why we’re in this front, this is what we’re doing. That’s always the challenge. Guys just want to get vertical, vertical, vertical in 4-down. In 3-down, it’s block recognition and understanding what the offense is trying to do and there’s only a certain amount of plays they can attack you with. I like my guys to understand, this is 4-down world, this is 3-down world, this is how they can attack us in the run, and as soon as they bump from a 3-technique to a four, they know exactly, okay now I’m in this world, this is where I’m living. So that’s obviously the hardest thing is having them understand different schemes.”

Erik McKinney

Erik McKinney began writing for WeAreSC in 2004, during his junior year at USC, covering the Trojans football team and recruiting. He then moved on to ESPN.com in 2011, where he served as the West Region recruiting reporter and then the Pac-12 recruiting reporter. He took over as publisher of WeAreSC in January, 2019.

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