Meet USC Football’s new defensive coaching staff

After putting together a dismal defense in 2023, Lincoln Riley and USC have a new defensive coaching staff for 2024. Let's meet the new coaches.

LOS ANGLES — It’s not exactly a secret that USC Football had an awful defense in 2023.

Under former defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who was fired after 10 games, the Trojans allowed an average of 34.38 points and 432.8 total yards per game. Statistically speaking, it was the worst defense in school history, breaking the record set two years prior.

So naturally, head coach Lincoln Riley overhauled the defensive staff. He brought in four new defensive assistant coaches, each of whom has extensive experience. The group consists of one of the fastest rising defensive coordinators in the country, one of the top defensive line coaches in the NFL, a linebackers coach with five years of head coaching experience, and a secondary coach who spent the past three seasons as a defensive coordinator.

On Thursday, the new coaches met with the media for the first time, along with as Riley making his first media availability since the Holiday Bowl. Let’s take a look at USC’s new defensive coaching staff, and how they will factor into the Trojans’ plans for 2024 and beyond.

D’anton Lynn

USC’s new defensive coordinator may be just 34 years old, but don’t let that fool you; he is already one of the hottest names in football.

The son of former Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn, Lynn got his start in coaching in the NFL, quickly working his way through the ranks. After a successful two-year stint as the Baltimore Ravens’ safeties coach, Lynn was hired as the defensive coordinator at UCLA last season.

In just one year with the Bruins, Lynn orchestrated one of the most remarkable defensive turnarounds in recent memory. After inheriting a unit that finished the previous season outside the top 90 in team scoring defense, Lynn immediately turned UCLA into a top 15 defense in the country. Perhaps his signature performance came against the Trojans, when he held USC’s explosive offense to a grand total of three rushing yards.

Now, he makes the move across town to try and change the fortunes of a USC defense that has been in turmoil for the better part of 15 years. The Trojans have not fielded a consistently strong defense since 2008, when, led by star linebackers Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing, and Clay Matthews III, USC held opponents to less than ten points per game. Numerous defensive coordinators have come and gone during that time, including Monte Kiffin, Clancy Pendergast (twice), Justin Wilcox, Todd Orlando, and most recently Grinch.

“I think he’s a really really tremendous teacher,” Riley said of Lynn. “He’s got a real calm, patient demeanor, and I think he’ll do a great job like I said of bringing the room together.”

There is a strong case to be made that how Lynn’s hire plays out will ultimately define Lincoln Riley’s tenure at USC. The Trojans have already shown that they can produce one of the top offenses in the country. If Lynn can turn the defense into even a solid unit, USC should be able to compete for championships. But if the defensive struggles of the past continue, then the Trojans could be in for a rough time as they transition to the Big Ten.

Eric Henderson

“That’s why you shoot big.”

Those were head coach Lincoln Riley’s words when asked about the hiring of Henderson as USC’s defensive line coach and co-defensive coordinator. And he didn’t just mean physically, although Henderson, who his 6’2″ and weighs over 250 pounds, is certainly an intimidating presence in any room.

Henderson comes to USC with an impressive resume. After beginning his career in the college ranks and working with the Chargers for two seasons, Henderson spent the past five years as the defensive line coach for the Los Angeles Rams. There, he coached future Pro Football Hall of Famer Aaron Donald, helped the Rams win Super Bowl LVI over the Cincinnati Bengals, and most recently developed third-round draft pick Kobie Turner into one of the best rookies in the league this past season.

“Eric has a great energy about him that you can feel already,” Riley said of Henderson. “He has a really really good football mind as well. He’ll certainly bring a lot of great ideas and thoughts.”

Now, Henderson returns to the college ranks, where he will look to play a part in helping to turn around USC’s defense. With several talented defensive linemen—such as Bear Alexander and Jamil Muhammad—returning to the Trojans in 2024 and a few notable transfers coming in, it will be up to Henderson to get the most out of a unit that has failed to live up to its talent level in recent years.

Matt Entz

It’s not every day that a sitting head coach leaves his job to go be a position coach at another school. Which is why it was so notable when USC announced the hiring of Entz, then the head coach at FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, as its new linebackers coach.

Entz has worked his way through the FCS ranks, including serving as the Bison’s defensive coordinator from 2014-2018 under head coach Chris Klieman. When Klieman left to become the head coach at Kansas State following the 2018 season, Entz was promoted to head coach.

In five years as the head coach at North Dakota State, Entz won two FCS national championships and made it to an additional title game. Under Entz, the Bison won 11 or more games in four of five seasons, with the only exception being the COVID year, when they played a shortened schedule in the spring of 2021.

One of the few things Entz has yet to do, however, is coach at the FBS level, which is a lot of what made the prospect of coming to USC so attractive to him.

“You have to understand the power of the logo,” Entz said of making the move to USC. “To me, this is one of three or four blue-blood programs that when this is operating at maximum capacity it’s good for college football.”

Entz will take over a linebackers unit that has struggled mightily with tackling over the past few season. Getting better production out of that room will play a huge role in determining whether USC’s 2024 season is a successful one or not.

Doug Belk

Like Entz, Belk is somewhat overqualified for his new job in that he previously worked in a higher-level role. After serving as the defensive coordinator at Houston for the past three seasons and as the Cougars’ co-DC for the two before that, Belk will be the secondary coach at USC.

Belk replaces Donte Williams, who spent four seasons at USC working with the secondary. The lone holdover from the previous regime that Riley kept when he arrived at USC in November of 2021, Williams also served as USC’s interim head coach following Clay Helton’s firing two games into the 2021 season.

“[Belk is] an excellent teacher in terms of the secondary,” Riley said. “He does a great job, which sometimes can be tough for a coach, of having personal relationships, being able to relate to guys, all of that, but also holding them accountable, being firm in the areas that are very important.”

“I’ve been very impressed with his ability to manage that.”

While Williams was renowned as an elite recruiter, the biggest criticism of him was that he struggled to develop many of the highly-touted players that he landed at USC. Hence, Belk will inherit a room full of talented players who have yet to reach their full potential. His USC tenure will be defined by whether or not he can get the most out of that talent while continuing to recruit at a high level.

Shaun Nua

The one holdover from the previous defensive staff is Nua. After serving as the Trojans’ defensive line coach the past two seasons and as the interim co-defensive coordinator for the final three games of 2023 following Grinch’s firing, Nua will remain with the program as defensive ends coach in 2024.

While USC’s defensive line struggled the past two seasons, Nua has had success throughout his coaching career, most notably at Michigan, where he served as the defensive line coach from 2019-2021. During his time at Michigan, Nua helped turn Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson into first round NFL Draft picks, with Hutchinson also earning unanimous All-American honors and finishing as the runner-up for the 2021 Heisman Trophy.

According to numerous reports, Nua did not get along well with Grinch, and the two frequently clashed. With Grinch no longer in the picture, Nua should be able to run his position room the way that he wants as USC works to fix its defensive struggles.