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    How D’Anton Lynn and Eric Henderson will work together as co-DCs at USC
    • January 27, 2024

    LOS ANGELES – Loaf (verb): To idle away time. To lounge, or saunter, idly or lazily.

    It sounds cliche, ultimately, but the foundations of the Gus Bradley-era Los Angeles Chargers’ defense were simple: critique effort first. It was the coaches’ guiding star in 2017, Bradley’s first season as a part of Anthony Lynn’s staff. Every practice. Every game. And if players were caught on tape not sprinting to the ball, as then-defensive line coach Giff Smith recalled, they’d be marked down with a “loaf.”

    In meetings the next day, coaches would pull up a slide and read aloud the highest tallies. INSERT PLAYER had 12 “loafs,” for example.

    “And he’s getting embarrassed in front of his peers,” Smith recalled, of those days. “Anybody can run to the ball if you got any character to you. So, if you’re not running to the ball, you’re choosing to be selfish.”

    All the while, sharing time in meeting rooms, defensive assistants D’Anton Lynn and Eric Henderson quietly observed.

    “Critique effort first,” Smith said. “I’m sure they’re both still doin’ that.”

    This otherwise-innocuous season in Los Angeles football memory – 9-7, missing the playoffs, lost altogether to history – planted the seeds for the relationship between Lynn and Henderson, both serving secondary roles in the first few years of their coaching careers. Six years later, they’ve reunited on a Los Angeles staff, tabbed as co-coordinators by Lincoln Riley and taking on the challenge of completely rebuilding a struggling USC defense.

    It’s an interesting alignment, particularly in timing. Lynn was hired as USC’s newest defensive coordinator at the beginning of December, tabbed after a year at UCLA as the young savant who would remold the Trojans around the personnel he could attract, his defensive ideals quickly drawing a slew of transfers and recruits alike. Then USC announced the hire of Henderson, a big-time defensive line coach with the Rams who’d helped mold Aaron Donald, in mid-January – as a co-defensive coordinator. Suddenly, the program has two highly-regarded minds sharing one job.

    Thus, the Southern California News Group spoke with members of the 2017 Chargers’ staff – the lone year in which the two overlapped – for a picture of how Lynn and Henderson will work in tandem at USC. All remember the two as bright, inventive minds who routinely were trusted with more responsibility than their job titles entailed. And the key point: their philosophies and coaching strengths have always been complementing, not contrasting, two men with strong personalities who will challenge each other but do so without job-title conceit.

    “There is no ego with Eric Henderson,” Bradley, now the Colts’ defensive coordinator, told the SCNG. “And there’s no ego with D’Anton Lynn. So will it work? There’s not a doubt in my mind it will work.”


    Anthony Lynn knew D’Anton and Henderson were more than coworkers, he said, when his son invited Henderson to his wedding in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

    Still, it didn’t seem as though the young Lynn and Henderson were exactly the best of friends. They had separate, specific focuses on that staff: Henderson working on the defensive line under Smith, Lynn working more closely with linebackers coach Richard Smith (now working under Bradley with the Colts) as a quality control assistant. They were more close colleagues, perhaps, with a deep respect.

    “You could just tell, there’s a natural connection and a natural trust between the two,” Giff Smith said. “And you always felt like they would wind up on a staff together some way. I’m not claiming I would say I knew they were gonna be co-defensive coordinators together at USC, but I think we always thought they would be on a staff.”

    Everyone, of course, knew that Lynn was his father’s son. He never acted like it, though, keeping his head down and cards close to the vest. He’d started four years in the secondary at Penn State, and despite being all of three years into his coaching career, Bradley began consulting the young Lynn to evolve the Chargers’ defensive philosophy – formerly utilizing a great deal of Cover 1 or “single-high” coverages with just one safety, but Lynn suggesting more split-safety actions.

    And Henderson’s coaching timeline, too, sped up in just his first year of coaching at the NFL level. Before long, Giff Smith attested, he’d entrust Henderson to put together play-tape for technique sessions – sitting down with the likes of Pro Bowler Joey Bosa as a rookie NFL coach to critique his film. Normally, Bradley said, position coaches don’t split up any group responsibility with assistants; but Smith challenged Henderson to mold rookies and lower-level draft picks like Isaac Rochell, a seventh-round pick in 2017. Within one year, Henderson turned Rochell into a five-sack presence in his sophomore season.

    “What he has,” Smith said of Henderson, “is the unique ability to tap the inner part of a guy to make him work harder than he ever thought he could. And that’s a gift that only a few coaches have.”


    One man, in this alignment, will have the headset. Will be the one to call plays. Will be the mind ultimately controlling the show, even as the two split responsibilities.

    “I guarantee you it’s going to be D’Anton,” Richard Smith said, “the one making those calls on (Saturday).”

    But based on that year together with the Chargers, former mentors anticipate responsibility being shared simply by harmonious coaching styles. Lynn is described by everyone, from coaches to parents to his own family, as a poker-faced, calm, analytical mind who’ll rarely explode. Henderson coaches, as Richard Smith said, with a twinkle in his eye. A smile, too.

    “But he can get after your ass on the field, you know what I mean?” Smith said.

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    It’s a natural pairing: Lynn the analyst, Henderson the motivator. And both were prepared for this, too, by those shared meeting rooms back in 2017, where Bradley would mandate his entire defensive staff game-planned together – no separation between the front and secondary. Henderson is more than a defensive-line coach, Bradley said; he understands the back end. And Lynn, who has specialized in coaching secondaries throughout his NFL tenure before his year at UCLA, has come into USC with a clear vision for molding the Trojans up front.

    “I think they’re very much on the same page with that,” Giff Smith said. “I mean, D’Anton did a great job with the outside edge rushers at UCLA and creating pressure on the quarterback, and being creative on his different simulated pressures that he brought, and Eric did that under Raheem (Morris) a bunch too. So I just really think it’s an easy fit.”

    And there’s one sure thing, at least: there’ll be no loafs around Howard Jones Field come fall.

    “I find myself pulling for ‘em,” Bradley said, “because you feel like, ‘Gosh, this is how it’s supposed to work out.’”

    ​ Orange County Register