LOS ANGELES -- Cameron Smith liked what saw this spring from USC's defense under new/old defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Though rehabilitating a knee injury and unable to practice, the freshman All-American linebacker appreciated Pendergast's new/old 5-2 scheme, particularly its simplicity.
It's new and old because Pendergast created the scheme in 2013 while working a single year at USC under former coach Lane Kiffin, who was fired at midseason, thereby removing the spotlight from a unit that ranked among the nation's top 25 in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, sacks, interceptions, red zone defense, third-down conversion defense and fourth-down conversion defense.
History, recent or ancient, isn't Smith's concern, though.
"There’s not a lot of thinking," he said of Pendergast's scheme. "I think last year we had some guys who were forced to think. This year, it’s just [snaps his fingers] there it is! There it is! That’s a plus for us.”
That comment suggests two things to snarky sorts: that USC's defensive players don't like to think, and that USC's defensive players were forced to think too much under former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. There is some truth to both interpretations, but both also fall short of explaining the Trojans' defensive inconsistency in 2015.
For one, Smith didn't become the first true freshman to start at inside linebacker for the Trojans in a season opener since 1978 because he wasn't a cerebral player, one who was on pace to become the first true freshman to lead USC in tackles since records were first kept in 1954 before he blew out his knee on Friday the 13th (of November) against Colorado.
In fact, Smith knows exactly what you're thinking, and if you expect him to throw Wilcox and his assistants under the bus, well, it ain't happening.
“It’s never the scheme. It’s the players in the scheme," Smith said. "I’m not going to blame anything on the [former] coaches. Those guys are why I came here. I love the new staff. I loved the old staff."
As for the Trojans' defensive schizophrenia last year -- yielding 40 or more points four times, 25 or fewer nine times -- Smith holds up a mirror, not a finger.
"As a player on the defense, I think we didn’t hold ourselves accountable enough to understand everything was going on," he said. “There were guys who didn’t believe in [Wilcox's scheme]. There were guys who did.”
In the end, it's fair to say that USC's players didn't always do what they were coached to do last year, and that falls on the players and the coaches.
Pendergast seems uninterested in critiquing the Trojans' 2015 defense. He said he's not even reviewed last year's game film because he wants to give his young unit a clean slate. He also isn't the sort to get flowery comparing his hiring this winter by Clay Helton, who more closely approximates his coaching genus, than his first tenure under Kiffin.
“USC is USC," said Pendergast from the same office he occupied in 2013. "It’s a great place to work. I was excited about the place in 2013, and I’m equally excited this time around.”
Unlike 2013, however, he inherits a young crew, particularly on the defensive line, which is replacing not only all three starters but also two top backups. Compounding matters, star-crossed junior defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow blew out his knee -- again -- this spring. The unit that lines up opposite defending national champion Alabama in the season opener will be made up almost exclusively of sophomores and freshmen, redshirt and perhaps true.
Yet the cupboard isn't empty. It never is at USC. There is young talent at all three levels, from defensive linemen Noah Jefferson, Malik Dorton and Rasheem Green, to linebackers Uchenna Nwosu, Porter Gustin and Osa Masina, to defensive backs Iman Marshall and Marvell Tell.
And, of course, there's Smith, the Pac-12's defensive freshman of the year in 2015, who expects to be close to full-go by the beginning of fall camp. He's so excited by the progress of his rehabilitation that he's framed his knee injury as a positive because he'd had a partial knee tear since high school and it needed to be fixed to get back to 100 percent.
“This was bound to happen. I’m glad it happened my freshman year," he said. "I got to play. Had some exciting moments. Was able to prove myself. I’d rather have it happen now than my senior year. I won’t miss another game.”
(USC fans, Smith was just making a point. Don't get too caught up in the idea that he will hang around all four years).
While Pendergast isn't looking at old film, he's aware that Smith posted one of the best defensive performances in the Pac-12 last year when he recorded nine tackles in 42-24 win over No. 3 Utah. Oh, Smith also had three interceptions, which he returned 54 yards for a touchdown, 41 yards to set up another score and a measly 27 yards because he was darn tired from all that interception returning, OK?
While Smith won't simply step into a starting role, the 6-foot-2, 245-pounder seems cut from central casting to roam as a middle linebacker for Pendergast, standing in as a more physically talented version of highly productive 2013 starter Hayes Pullard, who is currently with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars.
Smith is eager to show Pendergast what he can do, and Pendergast is eager to see it. Smith will lead a youth movement on the USC defense, but just like the 5-2 scheme, he is both new and old.
"It’s time to grow up," Smith said.