LOS ANGELES – Kenechi Udeze was a predatory pass-rushing defensive end for Southern California, a 2003 All-America who became a first-round NFL draft pick.
When his pro career ended, Udeze longed to teach a new generation of players the skills he used for the Trojans and the Minnesota Vikings.
USC coach Clay Helton is giving Udeze that opportunity as USC prepares for the Holiday Bowl against Wisconsin.
Helton's firing of four assistant coaches after the Pac-12 Championship Game opened the door for Udeze, who was elevated from assistant strength coach and put in charge of the defensive line for the bowl game.
Udeze jumped at the chance.
"I've always prided myself on preparation," he said.
Udeze, 32, is one of several young coaches auditioning for roles on Helton's USC staff or elsewhere. Helton last week promoted receivers coach Tee Martin to offensive coordinator, but Helton will call plays in the Holiday Bowl against Wisconsin.
Peter Sirmon, USC's linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator the past two seasons, is serving as defensive coordinator for the Holiday Bowl.
"There's kind of a fresh energy out here right now," Helton said.
Helton noted he was evaluating "everybody," including current staff members and coaches in other college programs and on NFL staffs. He said Wednesday that he would have the majority of his new staff in place by mid-January.
"There may be one, two positions left, but the primary focus of the [defensive] coordinator and some key positions will be done," Helton said.
At 6-3, the fit Udeze looks more like a current player than a coach.
After the Vikings selected him with the 20th pick in the 2004 draft, Udeze played four NFL seasons before he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He sat out the 2008 season while receiving treatment, attempted a brief comeback before the 2009 season and then retired.
Udeze worked as an assistant strength coach at the University of Washington and as a defensive line intern for the Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills.
"You've got to learn the individual to get the most out of him," Udeze said, explaining his philosophy. "I'm not going to ask a guy who has limited ability to go jump over three cars and go make a play.
"It's about giving everyone the right techniques and fundamentals to be efficient and effective on a down-to-down basis."
Trojans players have been impressed.
"He's smart, he's been there, he knows how to coach talent," sophomore defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow said. "Coach KU definitely has taken us from the ground and built everything back up."
Said Helton: "He's a hands-on guy the kids really trust. To see him out here with the technique and fundamentals he brings to the table, he's invaluable."