No. 8 USC hosts Arkansas St in joyous post-sanctions opener
LOS ANGELES (AP) Cody Kessler has had eight months to think about everything he wants to see when Southern California opens the next chapter in its storied football history. The quarterback can boil it all down to one concept.
''Start fast,'' Kessler said with a grin.
The eighth-ranked Trojans begin life after heavy NCAA sanctions on Saturday night with a visit from Sun Belt contender Arkansas State. USC has carried a vibe of excitement and renewal throughout fall camp, and not even coach Steve Sarkisian's misstep at a recent pep rally has dampened it.
When Kessler steps onto the hallowed Coliseum field for the first start of his third season as the Trojans' leader, he immediately wants to show the college football world and the Red Wolves that USC is back in top form.
''You don't want to take a while to get started,'' said Kessler, who passed for 39 touchdowns with just five interceptions last season.
''You don't want to wait until your third or fourth drive to get going,'' he added. ''Our big thing is to get a rhythm early, get it going and keep it up throughout the game. And our biggest emphasis this year is finishing games, so we want to go into the second half and keep the same pace.''
Arkansas State is traveling 1,770 miles west for a hefty payday and an opportunity to trouble the mighty Trojans. In his second year in charge, coach Blake Anderson will attempt to match the Trojans' potent offense with his own collection of playmakers led by quarterback Fredi Knighten and receiver J.D. McKissic.
Here are some more things to watch in these schools' first meeting:
EXPECT POINTS: Arkansas State averaged more than 476.5 yards per game last season, while Kessler's offense at USC averaged 457.4. Both offenses appear to be even better this season, which means the defenses are in for a workout under the Coliseum lights.
HELLO ADOREE: USC two-way star Adoree Jackson is back for his sophomore season, and he's likely to get playing time as a cornerback and a receiver. ''He's the only guy that covers himself,'' USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. The Trojans learned in fall camp that the track star can even kick field goals if necessary. When asked to describe his ideal season opener, Jackson got creative: ''Kicking a field goal, throwing a pass. I don't really know. Just being on the field, scoring three ways, being productive in all three phases of the game.''
VAGUELY FAMILIAR: USC offensive coordinator Clay Helton, who will call plays this season, used to work at Arkansas State - for exactly 57 days. Helton joined former Red Wolves coach Steve Roberts' staff in early 2010 after leaving Memphis, but former USC coach Lane Kiffin subsequently offered him a job. ''Wonderful place, wonderful town, wonderful people,'' Helton said this week. ''They welcomed me with open arms. Went through recruiting, signed a great class, and then I got the opportunity to come out here, and this is one of those things you can't pass up.''
TAKE TWO: Sarkisian said USC's defense will platoon players at nearly every position to start the season. The plan is to keep the defense fresh while taking advantage of the Trojans' improved depth with more scholarship players. With seven returning starters led by linebacker-safety hybrid Su'a Cravens, USC is hoping for quick results from the time-sharing arrangement.
GET PROTECTION: USC's entire starting offensive line returns, and it will have to protect Kessler from an Arkansas State defense that had 37 sacks last season, the most at the school since 2002.