When the 2013 season opened last August, there was a tremendous amount of angst that the USC secondary would have so many holes, it would resemble Swiss cheese. However, the Cardinal and Gold secondary surprised many by finishing second in the Pac-12 in pass defense.
While much of the credit for the secondary’s success goes to a superior front seven and the defensive schemes of former defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who also doubled as secondary coach, the fact remains that the secondary showed marked improvement through the course of the season.
Since his arrival, first-year USC head coach Steve Sarkisian has mostly revamped the staff, which also meant bringing aboard former University of Washington assistant Keith Heyward, who will be Sark’s secondary coach.
The hiring of Heyward appears to be a twofer – not only a widely respected secondary coach, but also a native Southern Californian whose knowledge of the region won’t slow down the recruiting process.
“Technically, this is home for me,” Heyward said with a smile. “I went to Taft High School in Woodland Hills and was coached by Troy Starr. This is awesome to be back down in Southern California and USC. It’s an awesome place, and we all know about the tradition. I am excited to be back and get it rolling.”
Part of the transition for Heyward was getting to know his returning secondary personnel and finding out what makes these guys tick. Call it a bonding session and a chance to just chill.
“I know most of all the guys,” said Heyward, who was an All-Pac-10 honorable mention as a senior corner at Oregon State in 2000. “Josh [Shaw] is a kid I tried to recruit out of Palmdale. I tried to recruit Chris Hawkins, Anthony Brown from the Inland Empire, Devian Shelton from Inglewood. I recruited Su’a Cravens down in Vista Murrieta.
“I recruited all these guys. I tried to recruit them whether I was at Oregon State or Washington, and this is a great group of guys. This is a great foundation for what we want to do. I don’t feel I have to go out there and rebuild this secondary. I think their pass defense was ranked near the top in the conference last year, so I am going to have fun.”
Spring ball will arrive in early March, and Heyward has a preliminary plan to promote himself to his new secondary, but believes it works both ways.
“Basically, you open up to the kids and let them know who you are,” Heyward said. “It’s a two-way street. They have to earn my trust and I have to earn their trust. From there, it’s about what you do.
“They have to know I am putting them in the right situations, and they have to know I care about them and not just wins. I want them to understand I do care about what they’re doing off the field and staying out of trouble socially and in the classroom. When it’s time to talk about football, we’ll talk about football. It’s a trust thing. You can’t just come in here and give a speech. They’ll read right through you.”
As mentioned, the Trojans had great success in the secondary under Pendergast, but with a new system comes new concepts and strategies. Heyward believes the new Trojans defense can be very effective, and he brings a multiple set of secondary schemes.
“We have to be multiple,” Heyward said. “We’re going to press. We’ll play some man and play some zone. It’s going to be a lot of different things we do. I told them they’ll need a DB tool belt.
“You can’t just do one thing. If we only do one thing in this conference, the offensive coordinators will eat you alive. The players will learn a lot of new concepts in blitzing, pressing, man-zone and all that stuff. Our tackling has to be great and we need to be multiple.”
Heyward knows the expectations at USC, and he also has an idea of what he is getting into, especially on the defensive side. Coaching at a powerhouse school such as USC brings high expectations, the highest in the Pac-12.
So, how much does this 34-year-old coach know about the Trojans overall on returning defense?
“I have watched some games and know they have a very good group up front and linebackers,” Heyward said. “The secondary is good, too, but there is a lack of depth.”
As part of his responsibilities, Heyward will be in charge of recruiting not only in Southern California but also covering the Oakland, Stockton, and Sacramento areas of California. This means not only players for his secondary, but for the team in general.
And what kind of athlete is Heyward looking to recruit?
“I think we have to bring a high level of character with players who will compete and win and win a national championship and uphold the academic standards,” said Heyward, whose wife, Cameo, is a former University of Oregon track athlete.
There's no question that Heyward, who played cornerback professionally for the BC Lions in the CFL, the Scottish Claymores in NFL Europe and the L.A. Avengers in the Arena League, has his sights set on a specific type of secondary recruit.
“First, I would say guys that can cover and have ball skills,” Heyward said. “He has to be able to disrupt receivers and tackle well. I have to have smart guys.
“Even though you’re a great athlete, you have to know how to play smart and know what’s going on with other offenses and what they’re trying to do to you. You have to know their formations and certain plays. You have to have FBI: football intellect.”
By the sound of it, it looks like this new Trojans new secondary coach has got everything just about “covered.”