Orlando’s new USC defense set to debut after pandemic delays

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Todd Orlando has plenty of experience arriving at a new school and installing his defensive scheme for the first time.

Preparing for his first season as defensive coordinator at No. 20 Southern California, however, has been different because of the coronavirus pandemic. There were more meetings and fewer on-field workouts, more time to develop communication and less time to work on tackling.

Orlando will get his first chance to determine the impact of the tradeoff when the Trojans begin their truncated season against Arizona State on Saturday.

“In actuality, we’ve had more time because you only get X amount of time in spring football and then we go on the road recruiting, so it’s not like we’re running back doing meetings with our players during the spring,” Orlando said. “So from actually teaching the defense it’s actually been very beneficial for us. Just the thing that hurt us was going in there and teaching practice habits and teaching the things you need to defeat a block and tackle somebody, those things. So that was probably the urgency when we first got the pads on on was, like, ‘We need to do this as much as humanly possible because this takes some time. We’re not going to try to figure out how to do this on Saturday.’”

Embattled head coach Clay Helton hired Orlando in January to overhaul a defense that had struggled to force turnovers and got gashed on the ground the previous two seasons. Given Orlando’s track record of immediate turnarounds — notably, helping Houston win the American Athletic Conference and reach a New Year’s Six bowl in 2015 and overseeing significant improvement at Texas in 2017 — it seemed like a solid bet he could do the same at USC following his dismissal from the Longhorns in December.

But Orlando’s first look at his new group consisted of one practice on March 11, hours before the first positive COVID-19 tests in the NBA brought sports in North America to a halt for months.

“You don’t have spring football so you lose a little bit in terms of figuring out who can play and who can’t play, so you reserve judgement,” Orlando said.

Orlando had to wait until October for a full assessment of what he had inherited. He was impressed with safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao, and the two juniors anchor what Orlando now calls the best position group on defense.

Pola-Mao led USC with four interceptions last season, and Hufanga was second on the team in tackles (90) and tackles for loss (7 1/2). Orlando is counting on them for leadership as much as impact plays after they picked up his new system quickly, in part because of the number of video calls that replaced in-person workouts.

“When you have it down, you can play fast. And when you have it down and you’re in a position that’s behind everybody else, you can get these guys lined up and over-communicate and settle a lot of people in,” Orlando said. “That’s what has been so impressive about it, but I think it all goes back to experience.”

The presence of Hufanga and Pola-Mao will be vital against the Sun Devils, who will debut their new offense under former Boise State coordinator Zak Hill. Orlando expects multiple personnel groupings and plenty of motion to create mismatches for sophomore quarterback Jayden Daniels, who did not play against USC last season because of a lower-body injury.

“It can be difficult to simulate that speed. … That’s what we anticipate early in the game, trying to get us moving around and not having our feet set in the ground, so that’s going to be important. And Jayden, he can extend plays. He can make all the throws,” Orlando said.

The season opener could determine who wins the Pac-12 South. Even though the on-field preparations have been limited, Orlando said he has not changed his approach.

“It’s the players’ decision, you know, when you have talent because I’m gonna go in there and coach as hard as I can every day,” Orlando said. “It’s the expectation internally by me but also it’s your commitment to the players. You can’t ask somebody to be on their game and do all this stuff if you’re cutting corners as a coach, if you’re not giving maximum effort to everybody.”

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