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Kiffin looking to finalize staff

2/13/2012
Despite doing an admirable job as an interim DB coach this past season, Sammy Knight was not given the full-time job by Trojans coach Lane Kiffin. Garry Paskwietz/WeAreSC.com

With less than a month to go before the opening of the 2012 spring practice session, USC head coach Lane Kiffin has said that one of his priorities is to have his coaching staff finalized before the end of this week.

Kiffin needed to fill three spots on his staff following the recent NFL departures of linebackers coach Joe Barry (San Diego Chargers) and wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore (Oakland Raiders). Defensive backs coach Sammy Knight -- who had served in that role as a graduate assistant in 2011 -- was not expected to be invited back in a full-time position.

Kiffin took a big step toward accomplishing his goal over the weekend when he announced to recruits at the junior day that Marvin Sanders had been hired as defensive backs coach and Scottie Hazelton as linebacker coach.

The hirings were initially met with mixed reactions by USC fans who quickly researched the new coaches and found that their previous employers were Florida Atlantic and North Dakota State, respectively. With all due respect to those schools, they aren’t exactly household names as hotbeds of future coaches.

After further review however, there appear to be some pretty direct ties for both coaches to the Kiffin coaching tree.

Sanders had only been at Florida Atlantic for two months, but had deep roots to the University of Nebraska prior to that. Sanders played for the Cornhuskers from 1985-89 and had two coaching stints in Lincoln, both of which included notable success. While serving as defensive backs coach in 2009, Sanders' group led the nation in pass defense and contributed to the top-ranked scoring defense as well.

When considering the credentials of a person like Sanders, who also played the position at Nebraska, it’s important to remember the impact that Monte Kiffin still has at Nebraska. The Trojans' defensive leader also played for the Huskers and later served on the staff for a pair of national title teams in the 1970’s. The elder Kiffin is certain to have had a lot of exposure to Sanders over the years and, conversely, Sanders is well-versed in the defensive schemes that Kiffin prefers to run.

There remains some uncertainty about the circumstances of Sanders departure from Nebraska, which came just after signing day in Feb. 2011. Sanders said at the time that he was leaving for “personal and family reasons” that were never fully explained, at least for those who wondered why a coach would suddenly leave his alma mater. Sanders was known as a “players' coach” with a particular skill in game planning. Sanders sat out the 2011 season, but was hired in December at Florida Atlantic by Carl Pelini, who had worked with Sanders at Nebraska under Carl's brother, Bo Pelini.

Hazelton also has ties to Monte Kiffin, albeit it on a less direct level. Hazelton -- who played linebacker at Fort Lewis College in Colorado -- spent his first two years at North Dakota State coaching under Gus Bradley, a respected defensive coach who once worked under Monte Kiffin with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. To take the coaching ties a step further, Bradley now serves as the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks for Pete Carroll. It is well established that Carroll considers Kiffin his coaching mentor and the common thread among these coaches is their use of the Tampa 2 defense.

The North Dakota State defense saw great results in 2011 under Hazelton, who spent the past two seasons as defensive coordinator. The Bison won the FCS national title in 2011 while only giving up 12 points per game, including one touchdown scored in the final three games.

The stakes will be high for both new coaches in their jobs at USC. Both walk into situations where their position groups are loaded and expectations are high for the coming year. The loss of Barry was stunning for the USC program, as he was a former Trojans linebacker and had played a major role in rebuilding the unit into one that should be a strength in the near future. In the defensive backfield, Knight was also a former USC star and had seemingly done a solid job in 2011 after stepping in for Willie Mack Garza just before the season started. It’s hard to imagine that Knight -- if he chooses to continue pursuing coaching -- will be anything less than successful wherever he ends up.

The only remaining spot to fill now is wide receiver coach. It shouldn’t be too hard to find a worthy candidate -- just let prospective coaches know that they will be coaching Robert Woods and Marqise Lee next year. It is known that interest was expressed in newly hired UCLA receivers coach Eric Yarber, but it’s unclear what other coaches may be in the running as well.