D’Anton Lynn’s journey from Celina, Texas to USC’s defensive guru

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LOS ANGELES — They would wage wars on the hoop in the driveway, a father who never believed in taking it easy and a son who never could accept his own failure.

Life is hard. Cruel. Unflinching. Anthony Lynn wanted his 10-year-old son D’Anton to know this, and understand that nothing came easy. Anthony was the pastor, and their driveway from Colorado to Texas to Florida was his sermon, preaching lessons with every swat of D’Anton’s shots and every game won 21-0.

D’Anton’s mother Cynda pleaded with Anthony, a former NFL running back in the twilight of his athletic prime, to lower the goal. To let him score, just once. No. If you want to score, Anthony would tell D’Anton, you need to learn how. Do something different. Go around me. 

Cynda thought it would break her son’s confidence. Instead, D’Anton would drag his father back out when Anthony would get home, weary from long hours spent across various NFL coaching gigs. Back to the driveway. Back to another butt-whooping for D’Anton, a young Sisyphus pushing the rock.

Losing has never broken D’Anton Lynn, the man now tabbed as USC’s next defensive general. It just pissed him off. For eight years straight, he’d run 21 against his dad, and the competitiveness got intense. Unsettling. One fellow parent, Anthony said, barred a young D’Anton from his house.

He plays too rough.

His father’s legacy has loomed large since that driveway, across a football journey walking paths already tread by Anthony. In D’Anton’s sophomore year of high school, Anthony moved his family back to Celina, Texas upon taking a job with the Cowboys – the tiny town with one stoplight where the father was a living legend. Best player in Celina High history. And Anthony thought it would all be too much for his son, a ballplayer himself, nowhere to run to escape a long shadow.

But by the time his senior year at Celina rolled around, D’Anton beat Anthony in the driveway for the first time.

“There was no mercy,” Anthony remembered.

And D’Anton never lost to his father again.

Two decades later, sister Danielle said, her brother hasn’t changed. That gene’s masked, maybe, by a private demeanor, an analytical approach that made him into a Broyles Award finalist at UCLA and a rising name in the coaching business. But after a mutual pursuit, D’Anton stepped into USC’s open defensive coordinator position in December, with all its pressure and legacy and trail of bodies left behindbecause of the challenge.

“You are going to a whole ’nother level of expectations,” Anthony remembered telling his son, when he accepted the job in December. “You are going into a hotbox, kid.”

D’Anton just smiled, a 34-year-old who had long shed his dad’s silhouette back in Celina.

“I just get the impression,” Anthony said, “he likes it. That’s what he wants.”

INTIMIDATING LEGACY

His son had no choice, Anthony felt, for a life in anything besides football by the time he came face-first with his dad’s legacy in Celina.

They bought a house in a little neighborhood right outside town, a lake nearby, right down the street from then-Celina offensive coordinator Bill Elliott. In the summers, D’Anton would come running over to the back window of Elliott’s house, where the coach’s boys sold fireworks out of their bedroom. Oh, how Elliott’s sons idolized D’Anton, because he was a Celina Bobcat. And in this town of a few thousand, then, everyone idolized the Celina Bobcats.

This was the home of the greatest win streak in Texas high school football history, a 68-game span. But they were not concerned with going undefeated at Celina, longtime coach Butch Ford said. Not concerned with winning the district. At Celina, it was a state championship or it was nothing.

It was intimidating, Danielle remembered, to move back to this small town. Anthony Lynn, to many, was considered the best Bobcat who had ever come through Celina. Long before D’Anton ever stepped into the spotlight in Los Angeles, his father worried he was making a mistake, bringing his son back to the same field and the same blue-collar atmosphere he was molded by.

“At one point,” Anthony said, “I thought it was going to be like a nightmare.”

Anthony loves Celina. But he grew up angry, at times, in the South. In one Little League game, a team full of “rednecks,” as Anthony’s youth baseball coach Pat Hunt put it, hurled racial slurs at Anthony when he came up to hit. He grew up feeling othered and disrespected. So Anthony took to fighting.

And when he was young, his grandfather sat him down.

You can’t go on like this, his grandfather told Anthony, because at some point, somebody’s going to kill you. 

A generation later, early in D’Anton’s time at Celina, a teammate plastered a sticker on his back as a prank. It was meant as nothing more cruel than a joke. But D’Anton took it hard. To his son, then, Anthony said, it “almost came across as even a little racist.”

“Mentally,” Anthony remembered, “the kid wasn’t happy.”

LASER-FOCUSED

By the time they finished school, D’Anton Lynn and that same teammate became best friends.

That Celina kid – who declined to be identified for this story – was about 5-foot nothing. D’Anton had heaps of inches and pounds on him. He could have swung on him, after the sticker. He could have, as family friend Hunt put it, “destroyed him.”

He didn’t. Because the young Lynn, as folks in Celina remember, had a special self-control, a self-confidence. He never touched drink or smoke, laser-focused on a football career that would lead him to Penn State.

Throughout D’Anton’s first year at Celina, Anthony kept an eye on potential schools in Dallas, seeing pain in his son’s eyes and thinking a larger school might be a more comfortable fit. But the young Lynn stuck it out, Ford seeing a need and switching him from quarterback to linebacker and later safety. One day, D’Anton was invited out by a school booster to go and work on the same ranch Anthony grew up working on.

The son came back dirty and tired and happy. That’s my boy, Anthony thought. And he stopped looking at schools in Dallas.

In the final game of D’Anton’s Celina career, his senior year in 2007, he cracked his clavicle on a hit in a state championship game against China Spring. It was a death blow. China Spring liked to throw the ball.

So on the sideline after a few plays being evaluated by a doctor, D’Anton went up to Ford.

“I got to play, Coach,” D’Anton begged Ford. “I got to play. I can help us win.”

He couldn’t raise his arm. But Ford put him back out there. And D’Anton spent the rest of the game shadowing China Spring’s best receiver, tackling one-handed, as Celina won a state title for the second time in his career.

Becoming a part of Celina, truly, in a way his father – who never won a state championship – could never quite touch.

“That’s the kind of kid he is,” Elliott said, remembering D’Anton’s simple refusal to come out of that state title game. “That’s the kind of mentality he has.”

ABSORB AND ASCEND

During a stint with the Buffalo Bills in the mid-2010s, Anthony was walking back to the practice facility parking lot late one night when he heard a voice carrying from the defensive meeting room.

Curious, he turned back and peeked through the door to find his son – then an assistant under head coach Rex Ryan, tasked with some play-install responsibilities – practicing a PowerPoint presentation at 11 p.m. to an empty room as if it was full.

Young D’Anton Lynn was perhaps always destined to follow his father into coaching. (Photo courtesy of Cynda Lynn)

This kid is different, Anthony thought. And in many ways, he only had himself to blame. He used to bring a young D’Anton to training camps when he was with the Denver Broncos, his 8-year-old son forcing his father to listen to his personnel breakdowns on car rides back home.

After a strong career at Penn State, an injury wiped out any shot D’Anton had at the NFL. So after a quick practice squad stint with the New York Jets, he immediately pivoted to accepting a scouting internship, making nothing but peanuts and living with roommates in pursuit of a coaching career.

You had to take immediate notice of D’Anton because of his father’s pedigree, said longtime colleague and current Baltimore Ravens defensive line coach Anthony Weaver, and indeed D’Anton spent his first few assistant jobs – Jets, Bills, Chargers – on staffs with his dad. But in his preparation and intellect, Weaver said, it was simple to tell it wouldn’t be long before he put on a coordinator’s headset.

And over time, the young Lynn became a sponge, soaking in learnings from various coordinators. There was Ryan, and Houston’s Romeo Crennel, and the Ravens’ Don “Wink” Martindale. In 2020, when Weaver was named Houston’s defensive coordinator, he and Lynn sat down with a glass of bourbon and dissected each fragment of their defensive gameplan every Saturday night. And Lynn was special, Weaver said, because he always asked why.

Lynn’s defensive philosophy became fluid, his secondary ideals becoming a combination of the man-coverage-based Ryan tree and pattern-match zone in Houston, his belief in the front seven formed in complementary big bodies who could stay on the field through a variety of downs. It coalesced into a defensive revitalization at UCLA in his first year as a collegiate coordinator this past fall, the Bruins’ defense finishing 14th in the FBS in points-per-game allowed after winding up 92nd in 2022.

“As far as our defense, I’m not a guy who has like a, hey, this is my scheme, this is what I do … I think you have to be flexible, you have to be able to adapt, and you need a scheme that is built that way,” D’Anton said in December, during his first press conference after taking the USC job.

Perhaps this ascent was always destined to happen, a spirit forged in that driveway in Celina, a mind forged from years soaking in NFL locker rooms.

“It wasn’t a matter of if,” Weaver said. “It was just going to be a matter of when.”

PASSION FOR PERFECTION

The challengers came in waves to Penn State’s Mifflin Hall back in the late 2000s, down to Ryan Scherer and D’Anton Lynn’s dorm room, for legendary duels on the sticks in NCAA Football.

Scherer and Lynn’s fiercest opponent, though, was always each other, keeping a running tally on their dorm wall of matchup wins. And every time Scherer would win a few in a row and find a play he’d spam to oblivion, he’d come back and find his roommate had somehow developed a counter.

“He was definitely, clearly thinking about it in his free time,” Scherer recalled, a smile in his voice.

“When he sets his mind to something … he’s going all in,” Scherer continued later. “There’s no half measures with him. No half steps.”

Her brother, sister Danielle said, is “well aware of the situation he’s going into” at USC. The Trojans’ season crumbled for the second straight year with an underwhelming defensive unit; public statements from head coach Lincoln Riley pledging improvement have been emphatic, tinged with a mild hint of desperation.



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