Ahead of his debut spring as USC’s defensive coordinator, Todd Orlando talked a big game. He was going to rebuild the culture of USC’s defense. He wanted more toughness, more physicality, more accountability. He talked about taking the Trojans to “a dark place.”
Then, after one practice last March, spring was canceled because of the pandemic. The loss of practice time was especially damaging to Orlando and the defense, he admits. When USC finally came back in the fall, that culture change had to be set on fast forward.
“Spring is all culture,” Orlando said. “Once that’s taken away from you, you get into fall camp, and you go halfway through the wintertime, and it’s like, ‘Are we going to train culture when we have a game in four weeks?’ So we take the first two weeks to do it, and it almost hurt us. You’re going through some things and teaching them how to be tough, but in the back of your head, you’re thinking, we have a game in two weeks.”
There’s no such hurry this spring. USC has 13 more practices, eight of which will be full contact, to fortify the culture he hoped to implement last offseason.
It’s rare, Orlando said, to get a second chance at laying that foundation.
“You only got one shot at it, when you come in as a new guy,” Orlando said. “If it’s not set in stone, it’s hard to fix. You can’t come back. You can’t do things soft and come back a year later and say, we’re going to harden up.”
That’s not to say that USC’s defense looked soft in its first season under Orlando’s tutelage. The Trojans allowed 39 fewer yards and 3.4 fewer points per game than in 2019. The defense forced the same amount of turnovers (16) in six games as it did in 14 the previous season.
It wasn’t perfect, but the seeds of a strong culture were planted. Now, with a full spring at his disposal, Orlando is hoping they’ll grow.
That process will be especially important for USC’s seven newcomers on defense. Orlando said he planned to first observe how they fit in with their teammates and acclimate to the culture already in place. Only after that point will he really be able to evaluate where they stand in terms of USC’s defense in the fall.
At least this year, he has the time to spare.
“That’s what spring football is all about,” Orlando said. “Fifteen days of just going at it and doing things that defy human nature.”
From receiver to corner
No position was deeper on the roster than receiver when Joshua Jackson signed with USC ahead of the 2020 season. So when the coaching staff came to Jackson with an offer to switch to cornerback, the former Narbonne High star didn’t hesitate.
The transition has been surprisingly smooth so far.
“He’s just had natural movements for the position,” Orlando said. “When you get a guy that skillful with the football, that’s a huge advantage. When the ball goes up, he can reverse himself and go after the football, just as good as a receiver can.”
At 6 feet 1, Jackson also has the size that cornerbacks coach Donte Williams prefers in his cornerbacks. Chris Steele, also 6-1, is currently slated to start in the boundary corner role, while the field cornerback role vacated by Olaijah Griffin could be up for grabs this offseason.
With opportunity still available, Jackson could work his way into the rotation quickly.
“I’m really, really excited about him,” Orlando said. “When Donte gets him a chance to show him the finer points of the position, he’s gonna be damn good.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.