Hayes Pullard has learned a thing or two about dealing with change in his time at USC. A fifth-year senior with 39 starts and 282 career tackles, he’s playing in the third defensive system in as many years for the Trojans.
Yet to the 6-foot-1, 230-pound inside linebacker’s credit, as well as that of the rest of his defensive teammates, you certainly wouldn’t know it based on the way they’ve performed this spring. Making what appears to have been a seamless transition from Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 to Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 multiple front scheme, the entire group -- particularly the front seven -- has shined throughout the vast majority of the workouts. And that includes during the team’s practice on Thursday, when Pullard opened things up by intercepting a Cody Kessler pass.
So just how have they been able to do it? According to Pullard, it’s easy: The difference between Pendergast’s defense and Wilcox’s system isn’t nearly as dramatic as some might imagine.
“There are a lot of similarities,” said Pullard, who chose to return to USC for his final year. “It’s just the different types of concepts that you have to watch out for, and the different types of verbiage that you have to learn, but it’s all similar.”
One thing that has taken some getting used to, however, is the frenetic pace of practice -- a direct byproduct of USC head coach Steve Sarkisian’s newly introduced no-huddle offense. Eight practices into the spring schedule, however, Pullard says that he has gradually adjusted to it over time.
“The first day it was most definitely shocking to everybody, but then Day 2 came, Day 3 came, and you just forgot about it,” Pullard said. “We’ve been conditioning without knowing it.”
Having acclimated themselves to the increase in tempo, Pullard believes the defensive players are now more prepared than they’ve ever been before to take on those lightning quick offensive attacks that have become so en vogue in the Pac-12 over the last several years.
“It’s just about the mindset of being able to play against the fast-paced offenses,” Pullard said, “being able to go down in six or seven seconds, just being able to think about the Oregons, and the Washingtons … they’re doing the same thing, so it’s already preparing us.”
But it’s not all about speed at USC this spring. The common routine at each practice has the team switching back and forth between 11-on-11 or 7-on-7 sessions, and periods where the offensive and defensive groups break apart and go over plays and schemes in meticulous detail at a much slower pace. Personally dealing directly with Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon during these teaching sessions, Pullard believes they have been extremely beneficial for all of those involved.
“We always use the example, it’s like if you’re going into a midterm, you’re going to meet with your professor and learn about what’s going to actually be on the test,” Pullard said. “They aren’t going to give us the answers, but they’re going to help us and tell us how we defend each and every play that the offense is going to throw at us, so when you go out there you won’t think too much, and you’ll be able to go out there and play full speed. I just look at it as them giving us the answers to the test.”
And speaking of Sirmon, Pullard has already developed a close relationship with his new position coach, and it’s safe to say that his coaching style, which grants the players a certain element of freedom on the field, has been a big hit with all of the linebackers.
“When he gets us on the field he just lets us go out there and go full speed,” Pullard said. “He isn’t just in your ear all the time. If he see’s something drastic then he’ll let you know. But he just lets you make a decision going full speed, and if you mess up then we get back to it in the film room.”
Of course, the linebacker corps also has the added benefit of possessing a virtual player-coach on the field at all times in Pullard. A seasoned veteran who served as a team captain in 2013 and led the team with 94 stops, he has made it a priority to ensure that the other members of the unit -- especially those younger players -- are all on the same page, but he has done so in a calculated manner.
“I try to do all of my teaching in the meeting rooms, and when I’m on the field I try to lead by example,” Pullard said. “I remember when I was younger, I didn’t just want a teammate yelling in my ear. I try to lead by example and let them know, ‘Let’s go. I know you messed up on the last play. We’re about the next play.’ “
With seven practices remaining on the schedule this April, the USC defense still has plenty of time to progress even further this spring, particularly with Pullard in the fold. And with the promise that they’ve shown already, Pullard believes that there’s reason for optimism when it comes to their long-term future.
“I’m definitely confident we have what it takes to succeed,” Pullard said.