Steve Sarkisian starting to make USC's offense his own
LOS ANGELES -- Steve Sarkisian was gone from USC for five years. After spring practice opened last month at Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field, the Trojans' new coach said that the familiar smell of caramel corn drifting over from a nearby baseball game made him feel like he was back at home.
Yet the former USC co-offensive coordinator spends most of his day in a plush office at the sprawling John McKay Center, a $70 million facility that did not exist five years ago. Even adjoining Heritage Hall -- the long-outdated building where former boss Pete Carroll ran his program out of a cramped office suite -- recently underwent a $35 million facelift.
"A lot of it feels like I never left," Sarkisian said. "And then there's so much that's [changed] that it feels like, Wow, this is actually brand new."
Much the same can be said of the offense that the 40-year-old Sarkisian, who came to USC after five seasons running the show at Washington, plans to install. The Trojans' storied program, which has embodied traditional West Coast, pro-style power football for decades, is joining the hurry-up, no-huddle revolution. But USC won't be morphing into an Oregon-style spread team. The Trojans' offense will still resemble the ones run by Carroll and Lane Kiffin -- just with a twist.
"We're not going to stray too far away from who we are," said Sarkisian, whose offense runs around 120 plays per practice. "We're going to run two-back power, we're going to run two-back lead. Those are the things we do well. We just do it fast. It plays to the nature of the kids we're coaching today."
During the uproar in February over the now-tabled 10-second defensive substitution proposal, reporters reached out to a number of coaches who are synonymous with the hurry-up offense: Auburn's Gus Malzahn, Arizona's Rich Rodriguez and Baylor's Art Briles, among others. Few thought to contact Sarkisian, as he is a recent convert. Only last season, his fifth as a head coach, did the former BYU quarterback go all-in on tempo, and with much success. The Huskies' plays-per-game average jumped from 72.2 to 81.0, third in the Pac-12. In turn, their yards-per-play average (6.35) climbed from 102nd to 26th nationally. With quarterback Keith Price primarily in the shotgun and Doak Walker Award finalist Bishop Sankey in the backfield, Washington won nine games for the first time in 13 years.
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Sarkisian, who went 34-29 in Seattle, thoroughly enjoyed his new wrinkle, noting that Washington's emphasis on an up-tempo offense had the added benefit of conditioning his defense to face frenetic Pac-12 foes Oregon, Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA. But unlike those pure spread offenses, the Huskies' attack was fairly unique within the college ranks because it was based on pro-style passing concepts. The same goes for Sarkisian's offense at USC.
"Whether you're on the spectrum of the Oregons or Arizonas of the world or if you're on the spectrum of the Stanfords of the world, somewhere in there you have to find your own identity that makes you unique," Sarkisian said. "I think we've found a little bit of a niche here that fits us and we have a lot of fun with it."
Washington's offensive resurgence last season began with an impressive 38-6 win over Boise State in Seattle on Aug. 31.
A week later, Washington State visited the Los Angeles Coliseum and handed the Trojans an embarrassing 10-7 loss that marked the beginning of the end for Kiffin, Sarkisian's friend and former colleague. Kiffin's late-night pink slip came at an airport terminal following a 62-41 loss to Arizona State on Sept. 28 that dropped USC's record to 3-2. By season's end, the Trojans had turned in a turbulent but ultimately redemptive 10-4 campaign, first under the direction of cookie-wielding defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, then -- after Sarkisian got the full-time gig instead of Orgeron -- under offensive coordinator Clay Helton, who led the team to a 45-20 Las Vegas Bowl victory over Fresno State.
"Last year was a roller-coaster ride," quarterback Cody Kessler said. "Now we have stability."
Sarkisian retained Helton (along with receivers coach and ace recruiter Tee Martin), presumably to give his chaos-ravaged roster some sense of continuity. But the move also showed that the offense wouldn't be that schematically different from before.
"It's going to be such a smooth transition for our players because they're running a lot of the same plays," said Helton, who formerly coached in a no-huddle system at Memphis. "The terminology has changed and the tempo of the way the game is played has changed dramatically."
The biggest and most welcome change for the players: No more wristbands for the quarterbacks. No more eight-word play calls. Just a lot of memorization of one- and two-word signals.
"Sometimes it's difficult because you want to talk to guys between plays. You can't do that," said Kessler, who is entering his redshirt junior season. "If you miss a throw or miss a play, you can't sit there and be upset about it because you have to run three or four plays after that."
USC has no shortage of qualified skill players on offense. As a first-year starter last fall, Kessler went from completing just eight passes for 41 yards in that forgettable loss to Washington State to throwing for a season-high 345 yards and four touchdowns in the bowl game. His anticipated competition this spring with highly touted redshirt freshman Max Browne is proving anticlimactic. Kessler, who quietly completed 65.2 percent of his attempts for 2,967 yards and 20 touchdowns, with seven interceptions in 2013, seems the clear-cut frontrunner due to what Sarkisian called his "rapid pace" of improvement.
"I feel a lot more confident," Kessler said. "I'm taking the approach that this is my team, these guys are going to follow me. I'm going to be the leader of this team."
The Trojans lost a superstar in NFL-bound receiver Marqise Lee, but junior Nelson Agholor has already demonstrated that he's talented enough to be a No. 1 wideout. He finished last season with 56 catches for 918 yards. Kessler first formed a connection with Agholor last season when Lee struggled with injuries, and the rapport between the two has continued into the spring. Wide receiver Darreus Rogers, a sophomore, appears to be another likely starter.
Perhaps no player stands to gain more from Sarkisian's offensive adjustments than redshirt junior running back Javorious Allen. Largely disregarded under Kiffin, the Tallahassee, Fla., native had four 100-yard rushing performances in USC's last six games of 2013. Though he's currently sitting out of practices with a sprained ankle, Allen is expected to lead a backfield that also includes former starter Tre Madden.
Allen recently chatted up Sankey, who has been training for the NFL draft in Los Angeles. "He was telling me how good [Sarkisian's] system is, the things to look forward to," Allen said. "Right now I'm loving it. I love the playbook we have, I love the fast tempo."
The most pressing issue for Sarkisian in year one may be the depth of the offensive line, where the Trojans' recent NCAA scholarship reductions have taken the biggest toll. USC returns two solid starters, left tackle Chad Wheeler and Max Tuerk, who is moving from guard to center. A third veteran, Aundrey Walker, is recovering from an ankle injury. Freshmen and career backups figure prominently at the other positions. Poor line play contributed to the team's slow starts in each of the the last two seasons, and a visit to defending league champ Stanford looms on Sept. 6.
But Sarkisian has spent little time discussing scholarship numbers, and he hasn't attempted to downplay expectations. The Trojans' talent level is not what it was when he left Los Angeles following what would be the last of Carroll's seven straight BCS bowl seasons. Still, Sarkisian inherited a handful of defensive standouts (most notably defensive end Leonard Williams), a confident quarterback and a host of personnel seemingly suited for his offense.
"I think we have the talent on this roster to compete for a championship," Sarkisian said. "Knock on wood, there has to be some luck involved when you have scholarship limitations. You can't afford the injury bug like they've had. But all in all, when we put our 22 starting guys on the field in the fall and their backups, we'll have a very good football team that's good enough to win a championship."