Lincoln Riley got a firsthand look at what D’Anton Lynn could do when UCLA, under its first-year defensive coordinator, held USC to three rushing yards in the Trojans’ 38-20 loss to the Bruins on Nov. 18. It proved to be an informal job interview.
After Lynn engineered a resurgent UCLA defense that gave up the fewest yards in the Pac-12 and the second-fewest points, USC is finalizing a deal to hire the 34-year-old assistant, two people not authorized to speak publicly about the move told The Times on Friday. Lynn will be tasked with reviving the struggling unit that has been the thorn in Riley’s side since he took over as coach at USC.
The Trojans (7-5, 5-4 Pac-12) are coming off one of their worst defensive years in school history. The 438.8 yards and 34.9 points USC gave up per game were the most for the program since at least 1955, when records are first available. The rushing defense was the worst in the Pac-12, giving up 183.7 yards per game while trying to rebuild with quick-fix transfers up front.
Riley fired defensive coordinator Alex Grinch on Nov. 5, one day after the Trojans gave up 52 points and 316 rushing yards in a loss to Washington.
Two weeks later, Lynn arrived at the Coliseum. Led by star defensive lineman Laiatu Latu, the Bruins forced three turnovers, kept the Trojans to their worst rushing performance since 2018 and held USC to its lowest-scoring game of the season in a 38-20 win that likely saved UCLA coach Chip Kelly’s job.
Kelly plucked Lynn, the former Baltimore Ravens safeties coach, from the NFL ranks with a contract worth $1.02 million a year. It was the most lucrative deal for an assistant in his position in program history.
UCLA got its money’s worth in Lynn’s one season.
His immediate revival of the defense was one of the top storylines, earning him a $50,000 bonus after the Bruins finished the regular season No. 11 in total defense by giving up just 299 yards per game. That was all the more impressive given that UCLA’s defense finished the previous five seasons Nos. 86, 70, 69, 113 and 102.
Barring a negotiated settlement, leaving before the end of his two-year, $2-million contract will force Lynn to pay UCLA a buyout of roughly $500,000— half of his remaining salary.
Kelly seemed to acknowledge the need to give Lynn a significant raise last weekend when asked about his defensive coordinator being courted by other teams.
“Yeah, we definitely would love to keep D’Anton here,” Kelly said. “I’m not in charge of tearing anybody’s contracts up, so that’s not in my realm but I know, and I know our administration knows, how valuable D’Anton is to us. He’s done a tremendous job and he’s a really, really good football coach, and he’s probably a better person than he is a football coach and he’s a really good football coach, so we’d love to keep D’Anton.”
Lynn’s defense benefited from some significant star power. Latu, widely projected as one of the top picks in next year’s NFL draft, led the nation with 1.8 tackles for loss per game and ranked fourth with 1.08 sacks per game. Twin edge rushers Grayson and Gabriel Murphy also routinely pressured quarterbacks as part of an aggressive scheme that tallied 41 sacks, ranking third nationally.
Among Lynn’s favorite mantras was “obnoxious communication,” meaning he wanted his players to talk nonstop before, during and after plays to tell each other what they were seeing and provide any possible edge. He also instructed players to give “shocking effort” and “attack the football,” something they became experts at while forcing 23 turnovers, tied for 10th nationally.
UCLA’s defensive renaissance caught Riley’s eye leading up to the rivalry game.
“You look across college football, whether it’s UCLA, there have been plenty of examples of when you can turn things around and grab some momentum,” Riley said at the time. “You get some of the right pieces on board, both from a staff and a player perspective, that you can make really major gains quickly. It’s very possible.”
Lynn will not benefit from the kind of returning players he had at UCLA, like Latu and the Murphy twins. USC will be losing its top edge rusher in Solomon Byrd and best cornerback in Christian Roland-Wallace. Byrd, a Wyoming transfer, had 11 tackles for loss and six sacks. After transferring from Arizona, Roland-Wallace tied for the team lead with two interceptions and 37 tackles.
But outside linebacker Jamil Muhammad, who announced his intention to return to the Trojans after 10 tackles for loss and six sacks in his first season at USC, appears ready for a turnaround. The Georgia State transfer tweeted a single smirking emoji after news about Lynn broke Friday night.
Lynn, the son of former Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, can evaluate the state of the defense as the Trojans prepare for their bowl game, which will be announced Sunday, while the Bruins prepare a backup plan for their postseason destination.