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USC FOOTBALL

Why do USC players like Clancy Pendergast? '52' is just the start

The Trojans welcome their 'feisty' new defensive coordinator from Cal and his new defensive scheme.

By Gary Klein

12:35 AM EDT, August 5, 2013

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Clancy Pendergast nearly lost his voice.

Two days into USC's training camp, the new defensive coordinator was speaking with a distinct rasp.

"Just talking to a lot of different guys," Pendergast said after practice Sunday. "It's an active voice, I guess."

USC players appear to be listening.

Since spring practice, a few months after Pendergast was hired to replace Monte Kiffin, they have raved about the "52" scheme that incorporates more blitzing and frees ends such as Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard to also play as linebackers.

"Coach P is more of a 'get after the quarterback' type of guy," safety Dion Bailey said. "That's pretty much his identity."

Said linebacker Hayes Pullard: "Pendergast brings that swagger. That's been great for us."

But Pendergast, who also coaches the secondary, is reserving judgment on how well the Trojans are transitioning from the 4-3 defense they played the last three seasons.

"We'll see, midseason, to really tell," Pendergast said. "I've been a lot of these, so it's one day at a time."

USC fans, meantime, are hoping to see results by Aug. 29.

That's when the Trojans open their season at Hawaii, the same opponent and site where USC played three years ago in Lane Kiffin's first game as coach and Monte Kiffin's first game overseeing the defense.

The Trojans scored 49 points that night but looked confused for much of the game on defense and surrendered 36.

It was a glimpse of what was to come in much of the ensuing three seasons.

In 2010, the Trojans ranked 84th in defense among 120 major-college teams. They were 54th in 2011, when they finished with a 10-2 record, and 60th after last season's 7-6 debacle.

The low point last year came Nov. 3, when USC gave up 730 yards in a 62-51 loss to Oregon at the Coliseum. Less than a month later, after a loss to Notre Dame in the regular-season finale, Monte Kiffin announced that he would step down after the Sun Bowl.

Lane Kiffin began searching for a defensive coordinator with experience against spread option offenses and variations characteristic of Pac-12 Conference teams. He reportedly queried Oregon's Nick Aliotti, Stanford's Derek Mason and Oregon State's Mark Banker along with Pendergast, who oversaw California's defense for three seasons.

Pendergast had been a defensive assistant at USC in 1992 and also worked as a graduate assistant at Mississippi State and Oklahoma before coaching 15 seasons in the NFL. He was the Arizona Cardinals' defensive coordinator for five seasons — including their Super Bowl team in 2008 — and he held the same position with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009 before joining Jeff Tedford's Cal staff.

In 2010, Cal led the conference and ranked 18th nationally in defense. The Golden Bears also led the conference and were 25th nationally in 2011, before collapsing in 2012. Pendergast lost his job when Tedford was fired last November.

Kiffin was intrigued by Pendergast's ability to engineer a quick turnaround in his first two seasons at Cal.

"We obviously didn't want something that took years to develop," Kiffin said. "We wanted to get it fixed now."

Ed Orgeron has remained as defensive line coach and Pendergast hired former Indiana assistant Mike Ekeler to coach linebackers.

Orgeron said Pendergast "is really in tune with what goes on up front" and that his scheme "fits our personnel."

As Orgeron's voice boomed around the practice facility Sunday — "Do your job! Do your job! Let's go!" he implored players — Pendergast stood about 30 yards from the line of scrimmage, took in the defense and watched as they made adjustments.

He eventually moved toward the sideline and pulled players close so they could hear him.

A day earlier, freshman safety Su'a Cravens had said that Pendergast had no trouble getting his point across.

"He's a feisty coach," Cravens said. "He's a yeller. He's not going to baby you."

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter.com: @latimesklein