USC Trojans: Steve Sarkisian

A look at USC's rehabbing players

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
7:12
AM PT
LOS ANGELES -- They observe in jerseys, and for those who can, they participate in controlled spring conditioning drills, walk-throughs, and mental preparation. Some even walk the steep steps of the Coliseum from bottom to top and back down again.

But no matter what they do, USC's walking wounded aren’t remotely in the same condition as their healthy brethren, who are fit enough to stretch the limits of their physical being in Steve Sarkisian’s nonstop practice pace.

[+] EnlargeJustin Davis
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriJustin Davis isn't a factor this spring, but his work ethic and motor will help him be ready for fall camp.
Sarkisian, USC's first-year head coach, is a great believer in muscle memory, which basically means one learns from doing rather than watching. In his incredibly fast paced, no-huddle offense and rotating defense, muscle memory must also go hand-in-hand with muscle conditioning.

Despite watching their teammates practice and condition at a pace not seen on Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Fields, there is an uneasiness that come regular season camp, in the heat of summer, the currently rehabilitating players could be in for a major conditioning shock.

Sarkisian feels that his available players in spring ball are now rounding into the type of shape needed for the regular season, and spring ball has been a catalyst to being in the type of condition needed for fall competition.

“That’s why we practice the way that we do,” Sarkisian said. “That’s why we make it as hard we can throughout practice. This prepares our guys for a game-like atmosphere.”

Come practice in August, Sarkisian expects his healthy players to return ready to go from a conditioning standpoint, and he also knows the conditioning challenge is even more pronounced for those rehabbing.

“The guys [who] are injured have their work cut out for them when they get back,” Sarkisian said.

Here are six rehabilitating players being held out of spring ball (for the most part) who are expected to be key contributors in 2014. They all will be faced with the challenge of getting into “Sarkisian shape” by early August:

• RB Justin Davis: Given the sophomore’s early track record of success on and off the field, Davis -- who suffered a season-ending broken ankle in 2013 -- figures to be ready with an indisputable work ethic and relentless motor. Expect him to enter fall camp in top condition.

• LB Lamar Dawson: Recovering from a left knee injury, this senior will not only battle junior Anthony Sarao for his starting inside linebacker position, but he will have to be in the type of shape that Sarao knows all too well. Sarao has really come on and plays with a high motor and intelligence, so Dawson has his work cut out for him in more ways than one.

• WR Steven Mitchell: The redshirt freshman is an electrifying player when healthy. Recovering from tearing ligaments in his right knee during the summer of 2013, Mitchell says he is still on the mend but expects to be in ready to go in August. A hard worker, the former Bishop Alemany star’s return would be a major addition for the currently ultra-thin receiving corps.

• OG Jordan Simmons: With his size (6-foot-4, 335) and the pace of the offense, will the sophomore be able to come into camp in the type of shape needed for the no-huddle offense? Simmons, recovering from knee surgery, could very well be a key and the final piece of the offensive line. So far Simmons is still potential and an unproven talent.

• TE Randall Telfer: With Xavier Grimble leaving early for the NFL draft, it appeared that Telfer would step right in. The senior might still do so, but he has been held out of spring ball with a knee issue, and his absence has opened the way for an impressive March and April by junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. It would behoove Telfer to be in the best condition of his Trojans career to hold off Cope-Fitzpatrick and the incoming presence of true freshman talent Bryce Dixon.

• OG Aundrey Walker: There are those both within the team and onlookers who say that Walker, now a senior, has the talent. But does he have the motivation? The Ohio native has spent spring practice observing and going through “soft” drills, but one wonders how the 6-foot-6, 300-pound guard will cope with the physical and mental conditioning demands to play in Sarkisian’s never-take-a-breath offense.
LOS ANGELES -- It has to go down as one of the top highlights of the spring so far at USC. During a late 11-on-11 period last Saturday, redshirt freshman quarterback Max Browne stepped back and launched a ball to Nelson Agholor on a post pattern. With the pass just a tad bit off target, the star wideout was able to adjust his position in time to make a beautiful grab on a 70-plus yard scoring play.

It wasn’t exactly perfect, but after all, the end result is what counts most, isn’t it?

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler, Clay Helton
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesClay Helton has been impressed by how well his quarterbacks have adapted to USC's new offense.
Not according to USC offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Clay Helton. Playing a vital role in the installation of Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian’s up-tempo, no-huddle offensive attack this spring, he’s an admitted stickler when it comes to doing things right.

“These quarterbacks will tell you, I’m a perfectionist,” Helton said. “It was an unbelievable catch by Nelson, but where is that ball supposed to be? It’s supposed to be led away from him to lead him away from the corner. So, we point those things out, we correct it, and we’re always trying to make our players better mechanically, fundamentally and assignment-wise.”

It’s that attention to detail that played an integral part in Sarkisian’s decision to retain Helton from the Trojans’ previous staff, but it certainly wasn’t the only reason.

When Helton took over as interim coach following Ed Orgeron’s emotional departure in early December, Sarkisian was, in his words, “blown away,” by the manner in which the 41-year-old Texas native took command of the team and guided it to a victory in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.

“For Clay to stand up in front of that team and take the reins -- I was so impressed by that alone,” Sarkisian said. “And his command in team meetings, and his command on the practice field, I just thought to myself, ‘How can I not have this guy on our staff?’”

For Helton, the decision to remain at USC was made just as easily.

“I absolutely love being a part of the USC Trojans staff, working with Coach Sarkisian,” Helton said. “You know, to be a part of this with a guy that is so brilliant, offensively minded, to be a part of this system again and to help in any role that I can is very satisfying and very rewarding.”

And with Helton in the fold, the Trojans have made what appears to have been a fairly seamless transition to the new offense this spring, all while going at a lightning-quick pace. In fact, Sarkisian noted on Saturday that the team has already run over 1,000 plays through nine practices -- over 2,000 if you include walk-throughs.

And while the new system differs dramatically from the prior one in a number of areas, most notably in terms of its tempo, verbiage and the fact that the quarterback now lines up exclusively out of the shotgun, Helton noted the similarities that have helped ease the changeover.

In particular, the emphasis on establishing a physical rushing attack that was present under former head coach Lane Kiffin, and virtually every other USC head coach before him, still exists. That, coupled with Sarkisian’s desire to make plays downfield has resulted in some solid production so far.

“When Coach Sark was at Washington, they were the 15th-best rush team in the country, but then what you see what I really enjoy is the explosion plays down the field,” Helton said. “He really forces the ball down the field. And I think the two go hand in hand, and I think when you add pace to that, and you’re a very explosive offense, and the quarterback makes good decisions, and we make our plays to 15 (Agholor) or to 84 (Darreus Rogers), those type of explosive guys, you’re going to be successful.”

And speaking of those quarterbacks, the position group that Helton has coached since his arrival at USC in February of 2010, all three members of an open competition that includes returning starter Cody Kessler, Browne, and early-entrant freshman Jalen Greene, have looked at home directing the new offense.

Helton was quick to praise each of them on Saturday, especially the two veterans who have been taking the vast majority of the snaps with the first unit.

“I feel like they’re progressing extremely quickly,” Helton said. “I like where they’re going, but we’re nowhere near being a finished product. The things that we’re working on are speeding up our decision-making, we’re working on being a little bit more anticipatory, getting the ball out quicker [and] not allowing for sacks. I like what they’ve done thus far in nine practices -- their completion ratios are right at 70 percent, both of them, and they’re protecting the football.”

And while 70 percent isn’t quite perfect, in this instance, it is close enough, providing more than enough reason for optimism for Helton. And that goes for the offense as a whole, which Helton is just as eager to see in the fall as everyone else.

“I think this system right now fits our personnel perfectly with what we’re doing,” Helton said. “I can’t wait to see it live and in person.”
LOS ANGELES -- Much ado was made regarding the USC quarterback competition between incumbent junior starter Cody Kessler and redshirt freshman Max Browne, a highly talented and likeable thrower by way of Sammamish, Wash.

As much as the wide-open quarterback competition theory was advanced prior to and during spring ball, it’s been quite obvious that Kessler has taken first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian’s new offensive system and elevated his game. While Browne has shown improvement in his game, he hasn’t been quite able to keep pace with his older and more experienced teammate.

Kessler’s superior spring performance, however, may actually be a blessing in disguise for Sarkisian, who heavily recruited both Kessler and Browne when he was the head coach at Washington.

Besides the actual on-the-field competition between Kessler and Browne, there are four other underlying factors that may also be taken into consideration when Sarkisian names his quarterback, which appears likely by the end of spring ball on April 19.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThere are several factors that could lead USC coach Steve Sarkisian to name Cody Kessler the starting quarterback by the end of spring.
Factor 1: The Trojans open the 2014 season on Aug. 30 by hosting Fresno State, a team the Men of Troy hammered 45-20 back in December at the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. The quarterback of that lopsided demolition was Kessler, who threw for 345 yards and a Las Vegas Bowl-record and career-high four touchdown passes.

Obviously Sarkisian, who was in Las Vegas to watch the game, saw firsthand as Kessler dissected the Fresno State defense, and No. 6 also knows about the Bulldogs' returning personnel. Given the fact that Sarkisian can’t afford his new team to stub its toes against a squad it beat handily, it would be reasonable to think that with Kessler at the helm, chances would increase substantially for a season-opening victory in the Coliseum.

If the Trojans went into the Fresno State opener with an inexperienced Browne, they would still probably stand a good chance of winning. However, with a rookie quarterback starting his first collegiate game and the Bulldogs aware of it, the possibility of a Fresno State upset would notably increase. A Bulldogs upset would set up a worst-case scenario heading into the following week’s Pac-12 opener at Stanford and, no doubt, a quarterback controversy.

Factor 2: Considering the Trojans shocked highly ranked Stanford last season in the Coliseum, 20-17, you don’t have to be ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit or Lee Corso to know that Stanford head coach David Shaw and his team will be looking to hand it to the Trojans in revengeful fashion. And for good measure, they have the returning players to do it.

If the Trojans are to pull off another upset of the host Cardinal -- who return a successful, experienced senior quarterback in Kevin Hogan -- Sarkisian knows he needs an experienced quarterback, and he already has one in Kessler, who passed for 288 yards and one touchdown last season against Stanford.

Again, as talented as Browne is, would it be fair to start an inexperienced freshman quarterback against a team with a tough defense? You can bet Shaw would throw the defensive kitchen sink at a rookie quarterback, something that would be less effective against the experienced Kessler.

Factor 3: Since his hiring and by his own admission, Sarkisian has made no bones about the 2014 Trojans not rebuilding but already being championship caliber. In fact, he recently said that when healthy, his team is more talented than people think. That comment by itself puts increased expectations on the Trojans' new coach.

After the Stanford game, the Trojans travel across the country the following week for a battle at Boston College. Regardless of the Stanford outcome, an experienced quarterback and leader like Kessler would go a long way toward preventing a letdown.

Most would agree that the early schedule could bring immediate praise and early validation for Sarkisian’s new program or unwanted scrutiny. A potential 3-0 start to the season would go far in establishing more answers than regurgitated questions regarding his hire by USC athletic director Pat Haden. Kessler at quarterback would likely position the Trojans for a positive early-season scenario.

Factor 4: Fair or unfair, if things go south early in USC's 2014 schedule, Sarkisian knows that Trojans Nation will point out quickly how the 2013 team beat Stanford and Fresno State with former interim head coaches Ed Orgeron and Clay Helton, respectively, and even Boston College under Lane Kiffin.

In a perfect world, Sarkisian should be objectively judged not on the first three games of 2014 but the season in its entirety. However, it’s inevitable that during the early part of the season, comparisons between Sarkisian and Orgeron will be well documented.

All of which brings us back to the competition between Kessler and Browne and potential scenarios with either quarterback starting the season. Of course, given the way Kessler has performed with just six spring practices remaining, all the conjecture, hypotheticals and analysis could be a moot point.
As the Trojans move into the fourth week of spring ball drills, the coaches are still searching to balance the desire for physical play with the need to keep players healthy on a reduced roster.

[+] EnlargeShaw
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThe USC defense is likely to look much different in the fall with injured players like Josh Shaw back in action.
When Steve Sarkisian set the agenda for spring ball, he made it clear that one of his goals was to have all the injured players healthy for the fall. With injured veterans like Leonard Williams and Josh Shaw, the decision was made to sit them out entirely. And there was a lot of caution shown in terms of bringing other players back as well.

Sarkisian chose to focus a lot of attention this spring on the installation of new schemes on both sides of the ball, including morning walk-throughs and in-practice teaching sessions that would allow those injured players the opportunity to mentally stay with the rest of the team.

One of the trade-offs has been fewer opportunities for live tackling during practice, a concession that no coach wants to make but that sometimes can come into play. There were a few dozen live plays during a recent practice session at the Coliseum -- including a spirited Oklahoma drill -- and other isolated physical sessions, but they have been limited in scope.

“You would love to practice [live tackling] all the time, but you have to be smart about the way you do it,” USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “You work on tackling in controlled environments where you limit the number of bodies potentially going to the ground, you work that way in one-on-one drills, you work it on bags. But when you get to go live, you have to go. There’s nothing like live tackling.”

It’s not like the Trojans don’t have plenty of opportunities to tackle if they want. Through nine days of spring ball, the new up-tempo offensive system has run more than 1,000 plays (more than 2,000 if you include morning walk-throughs), and there is an added benefit there as the defensive players must also adapt quickly to the new pace of play.

“The offense can have the advantage late in the game with the up-tempo,” Sarkisian said. “That’s why we practice this way, to prepare for games.”

That late-game advantage would be evident based on what Wilcox has seen so far from his defense.

“We have a tendency to start practices fast and we play well for the first half, but we don’t do as well in the second half,” Wilcox said. “That’s where we have to continue to emphasize finishing strong because the end of the game is when you get up there in play count. When you get to plays 100 to 120, that’s when you really need to sustain things mentally and that’s something we’ve got to work on. The effort has been good, we just have to get better. I would have thought through nine days that we would have it down pat and look great, but I don’t know if that’s reality.”

It would be natural to expect things to look better in the fall, especially when so many of the injured players return. In addition to starters such as Williams and Shaw, there are also players with starting experience like J.R. Tavai, Lamar Dawson and Anthony Brown who are expected back in action.

In the meantime, other players will continue to fill in during the last two weeks of spring to get as much experience as they can.

“With the injured guys out, there’s some guys taking reps right now who won’t be getting reps in the fall,” Wilcox said. “But that’s OK, we need everybody and you’re always looking to build on your depth. It’s a chance for those guys to show us something to maybe earn a bigger role.”
Athlon Sports is big on lists. And we’re big on bringing you their lists because, well, it's the offseason, and it’s fun.

One annual list in particular always seems to get folks all hot and bothered, and that’s their annual ranking of the Pac-12 coaches.

Before people go all crazy on Twitter, remember, THIS IS NOT A PAC-12 BLOG LIST. We are simply sharing it because we think it’s interesting. Your thoughts are always welcomed in the mailbag.

Here’s the 2014 list that Steven Lassan put together:

  1. David Shaw, Stanford
  2. Chris Petersen, Washington
  3. Todd Graham, Arizona State
  4. Mike Riley, Oregon State
  5. Mike Leach, Washington State
  6. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
  7. Jim Mora, UCLA
  8. Steve Sarkisian, USC
  9. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado
  10. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
  11. Mark Helfrich, Oregon
  12. Sonny Dykes, California

Some thoughts:
    [+] EnlargeRodriguez/Graham
    AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez (right) is ranked sixth on the Pac-12 coaching list by Athlon.

  • I went back to their 2013 and 2012 rankings and noticed a few interesting moves. Rich Rodriguez was No. 3 last year and is No. 6 this year. I find that interesting since he won the same amount of games last season as in 2012 (8-5), scored a signature win last season by topping No. 5 Oregon and did it without his 2012 quarterback. Granted, Arizona had a light nonconference schedule last fall, but does that warrant being dropped a quarter of the way down?
  • Two years ago, Shaw was No. 9 on their list, despite being named Pac-12 Coach of the Year in 2011. Last year, he bounced up to No. 1 and is in the top spot again. For having won back-to-back Pac-12 titles, I see no problem with him being No. 1 again.
  • My first thought was that Petersen was way too high, considering he has never coached a single game in the conference. Then I pushed that silliness out of my mind. He has coached against this conference, going 5-2 during his stint with Boise (not counting games against Utah when it was in the Mountain West or the bowl loss to Oregon State last season when he wasn’t the head coach). Plus, he’s a two-time national coach of the year. That’s a better résumé than anyone else in the league. I’ll buy him at No. 2.
  • My biggest gripe with the list is Mora at No. 7. He was No. 11 on the 2012 list and No. 8 on the 2013 list. All he has done is go 19-8, win the South title one of those two years and beat USC twice. Doesn’t that get you a statue on campus? He has bolstered the national reputation of the program and was given a nice contract extension for his work. I would slot him in either the No. 3 or No. 4 spot with Todd Graham. Both have nearly identical résumés so far. Both are 2-0 against their rival. Both have won the Pac-12 South. They have split their head-to-head games with each winning once on the road. Both have had one blowout bowl win and one bad bowl loss. The only reason I’d probably put Graham ahead is that he was named coach of the year. But Mora belongs in the upper third.
  • Sarkisian is interesting. People are quick to rip his hire at USC, but recall the coaching job he did at Washington when he first got there. He turned a winless team into a pretty good program. Petersen is coming into a much more advantageous position than when Sark first got there. How that translates to USC remains to be seen.
  • Helfrich was No. 12 in 2013. For winning 11 games in 2013, he gets that big boost all the way up to No. 11. I get the sentiment -- that the Ducks were “supposed” to go to the BCS title game last season. He can’t control an injury to his quarterback. Don’t be shocked if he’s in the top five when Athlon releases its 2015 list.
  • Whittingham has stumbled from the No. 4 spot he occupied in 2012. Like Helfrich, he can’t control the unfortunate rash of injuries that have plagued his quarterbacks since coming into the league. I know this, there aren’t many defensive-minded coaches I’d take over Whittingham.
  • Riley continues to be in the upper half of the list. Which is completely fair. He’s done more in that setting than most people could. Oregon State fans seem to clamor annually about what’s on the other side of the fence. When the day comes that Riley does step down (and I have to imagine it will be on his own terms), those complaining about change will miss him.

You get the idea. Lists are hard to put together, because everyone has a bias and an opinion. I think MacIntyre has done some great things at Colorado, and I think Washington State’s progress under Leach has been outstanding. As for Dykes, well, let’s give it another year and see what he can do with a healthy roster.

So we once again salute Athlon for making the list. Even if we don’t always agree with it.
USC junior fullback Jahleel Pinner hasn’t recorded a single carry up to this point in his career, but if the two most recent practice sessions of the spring are any indication, that just might change in the fall.

[+] EnlargeJahleel Pinner
Chris Williams/Icon SMIJahleel Pinner has seven career receptions -- and no rushes -- for the Trojans.
With the running back corps decimated by injuries, Pinner has been relied upon heavily -- both at his normal fullback spot, where, with Soma Vainuku sidelined, he has served as the lone scholarship contributor, and at tailback, where he has split reps with Tre Madden and walk-on James Toland. And to the credit of Pinner, a part-time starter in 2013, he has seized the increased opportunity to make a strong statement with his play -- particularly on Saturday when he put together a string of impressive runs during the team’s full-pads workout in the Coliseum.

“You know, Jahleel is a unique player because he is a very smart football player -- he’s got a very high football IQ,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. “On a lot of those runs, he hadn’t even carried the ball ever leading up to that Saturday scrimmage, and he had a natural feel for running the ball where the ball was supposed to go, and then taking advantage when our defense was wrong, which is really how the running game works. When the defense is wrong, you have to take advantage of it, and he was in the right spot to do so.”

Of course, the fact that Pinner has looked at home toting the ball shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise. After all, he did see time at the position -- in addition to fullback -- as a high school standout at Orange County power Mission Viejo in California, amassing more than 1,500 yards on the ground over the course of his final two seasons, despite being hampered by an ankle injury as a senior.

With a rock-solid 5-foot-11, 240-pound frame, however, and a reputation as a punishing blocker, he has made a name for himself exclusively at fullback at USC, where his attributes have proven to be a perfect fit -- both in the Trojans’ prior offensive scheme, as well as in Sarkisian’s newly installed up-tempo, shotgun-based attack. Throw in the fact that talented tailbacks Javorius Allen, Justin Davis, Ty Isaac and D.J. Morgan are all due back in the fold in the future, and a permanent switch from fullback isn’t likely to be in the cards.

Still, with the versatility that Pinner has shown this spring, Sarkisian envisions Pinner potentially lining up at tailback on a situational basis for the Trojans in the fall.

“I don’t know if he’s ever going to be a feature back for us down the road, but he’s a guy that we know we can put him in, whether it’s in a short-yardage situation, a goal line situation, [or] late to close out a football game,” Sarkisian said. “He’s a guy that we can have trust in that he can go out and execute the offense from that position.”

For Pinner, who has more than enjoyed his time at tailback, that’s music to his ears.

“With this offense there’s going to be a lot of plays,” Pinner said “They’re not going to play just one running back all 120 plays you run per game or whatever, so we are going to be rotating backs just like we did last year. So, as long as I keep doing what I’m doing and playing hard, I’m going to get a shot in the games.”

And with that prospect of possibly taking on a larger role within the offense spurring him on, Pinner is determined to stay focused on the task at hand, all in an effort to continue in what has already been a productive spring.

“Every day is a golden opportunity here,” Pinner said. “I’m just trying to take advantage of every rep I get, and just trying to get better.”
Spring ball can often be a time of experimentation with personnel decisions and schematic changes, but first-year USC coach Steve Sarkisian has also brought a unique approach to his teaching methods.

Among the areas that Sarkisian wanted to emphasize this spring for the Trojans was an immediate introduction to the up-tempo style, the installation of new schemes on both sides of the ball and the desire to have any injured player healthy by the time fall camp rolls around in August.

With the new up-tempo style, the Trojans are running more plays in practice. They ran 120 on the first day of spring compared to an average of 80 or so per day during the Pete Carroll era. There are quotas in place for each period of how many plays need to be run and there is no stoppage between plays to huddle with the coaches -- it is a game-time environment where things are moving at all times.

For the installations, Sarkisian is using walk-through teaching periods as a key element of his plan. The timing of these periods is also designed to mimic game conditions, as a game is a series of high-paced plays followed by working with a coach on the sidelines to review what took place on the field.

“We don’t have time to critique our players between plays, and it’s designed that way,” Sarkisian said. “That’s why you see the walk-through periods at different stages during practice. Most people do that teaching before practice but we break them up into three periods within practice and we call them teaching periods. We take the time to try and fix some of the errors that we saw during the team periods. It’s a little different way of teaching but I think it’s a way to grab the players' attention and I think they respond to it well.”

There are also morning walk-throughs before each practice, which can feature as many as 100 plays in each session.

"The coaches are doing a great job with walk-throughs and meetings,” USC tailback Javorius “Buck” Allen said. “With a walk-through in the morning we're able to fix mistakes for practice that afternoon. A lot of guys learn better in that setting and it translates quickly to the field.”

Getting that kind of teaching done when installing a new offense and a new defense is critical. One bonus that comes with it is the ability to allow the injured players to be more involved, both mentally and physically, in the walk-through portions of practice.

"I think our communication is much better, especially defensively. We've put in a lot of offense and a lot of defense and those two things mashing together can be challenging," Sarkisian said. "I think we are really benefiting from the walk-throughs, one, at practice, but two, the 20 guys that can't practice right now are getting such valuable reps."

With the USC roster numbers still somewhat limited during the final year of NCAA sanctions, this approach by Sarkisian is a good example of the former quarterback evaluating his options and developing a plan to accomplish his goals for spring.
1. Reading USC’s spring prospectus, this nugget stopped me: In six games last season, the Trojans used a total of 14 or fewer players on defense. That’s a stark illustration of the effect of the NCAA scholarship penalties. USC has eight starters returning on each side of the ball. But of the 49 returning lettermen, 18 were either walk-ons, injured or scholarship guys who just didn’t play. That’s a reminder of the work that Steve Sarkisian has cut out for him, and of how well the Trojans did to go 10-4 last season.

2. Former Penn State assistant coach Jay Paterno entered the race for the Democratic nomination for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor late, and now he has withdrawn early. Another candidate challenged the legitimacy of the signatures on Paterno’s nomination petitions. The legal battle would have consumed considerable time and money leading up to the May 20 primary. Too bad, because as news stories go, it would have been interesting to see if Paterno could use his name recognition to make voters take him seriously. He seemed to be making headway.

3. If you love writing and you love college football history, make sure you read “His Ownself,” the just-published autobiography of legendary sportswriter Dan Jenkins. He saw TCU play for the 1936 Rose Bowl, and he saw TCU play in the 2011 Rose Bowl. No one covered the 1960s, the decade of Bear Bryant, John McKay and Darrell Royal, better. You also get Jenkins on the last 60 years of golf, from Hogan to Woods. It’s like standing in the corner of a bar with Jenkins holding court. It is great, great fun.
Happy Friday.
 

Video: USC's QB competition

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
5:30
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video
ESPN.com's Ted Miller says don't be surprised if new USC coach Steve Sarkisian taps incumbent starter Cody Kessler as his starting quarterback at the end of spring practices.
Amid the many pressures Steve Sarkisian must face as the enterprising new football coach at USC, this question must be asked:

Can he really risk a full-fledged quarterback controversy?

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesCody Kessler has experience, but could he wind up being the backup QB for the Trojans in 2014?
Cody Kessler is the engaging incumbent at the position, popular with his teammates and fresh off an MVP performance in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Max Browne is the up-and-coming redshirt freshman, still unproven but described by some as having a higher upside.

The easiest thing for a new coach to do would have been to announce the job is Kessler’s to lose. Kessler had a solid sophomore season and seems to be only now settling in and coming into his own.

But Sarkisian didn’t do that. He quickly emphasized that all jobs on the team “are open,” including quarterback, and he reminded people that as the former coach at Washington, he was very aware of Browne’s high school exploits and the fact that he had been the National Player of the Year at Skyline High in Sammamish, Wash.

So now here the QBs are at Sarkisian’s first spring practice in downtown Los Angeles, sharing the reps, taking turns throwing crisp spirals to a variety of the Trojans’ talented skill players. Kessler seems even more confident and self-assured than he did a year ago, but Browne, who is taller with a more NFL-like body, is right there, competing with him play after play and showing off a lovely touch on balls thrown downfield.

The longer this goes, the better the chance of Sarkisian waiting until sometime in the fall to anoint a starting quarterback. And allowing a long, hot summer of controversy to sit there and simmer.

Pete Carroll would be aghast. Sarkisian's mentor, the former highly-successful USC coach who now coaches the Seattle Seahawks, considered quarterback controversies to be the root canals of football. He tried to avoid them at all costs.

Remember that horrible 2007 loss to 41-point underdog Stanford? I know, I know -- if you’re a longtime Trojans fan, you’ve tried to forget it. But early in the second half of that game, quarterback John David Booty broke a finger on his throwing hand. Amazingly, Carroll left him in and even had him attempting long, looping passes down the center of the field, a couple of which were intercepted.

Why? Some thought it was because he didn’t yet trust backup Mark Sanchez. Others felt it was Carroll’s fear that Sanchez, who had flashed considerable ability in practice, would come in and play so well that it would create a rousing quarterback controversy.

An even better example came a couple of years later, when Matt Barkley, who had surprisingly won the job as a freshman, was injured in a terrific early road victory at Ohio State. Aaron Corp, who had demonstrated such unusual running ability in the spring that Carroll had predicted he might rush for 600 yards if he started, had to take over the position in an important conference game against Washington and, coincidentally enough, a young coach named Sarkisian.

So, given the fact Corp’s strength was his ability to run, you would have thought some quarterback running plays might have been included in the game plan, right? Wrong. Strangely, Corp was limited to mainly handing the ball off and never was used on the rolling options that had been so effective in the spring.

Why? Even after that stunning, disappointing loss in Seattle, Carroll never fully explained it. But to those who had observed the coach closely through the years, the answer seemed obvious. If he had allowed Corp to run and the kid had looked good doing it, there was a chance it could have created ... you got it, a lively quarterback controversy.

That’s how much Carroll dreaded the idea. He apparently preferred to gamble, thinking he could win the game without utilizing Corp’s one obvious talent, to the possibility of facing the inevitable questions about whom should start the rest of the season, Barkley or Corp.

If Sarkisian is as leery of a potential quarterback problem as Carroll, it hasn’t been evident yet. But then, this is only the second week of spring practice, and nothing at this point is written in cardinal and gold stone.

It certainly will be interesting to watch how the new coach handles this delicate situation as the spring progresses.

Is Sarkisian merely allowing it to play out, knowing all along that Kessler -- the more proven, logical choice -- will be his guy in 2014? Or is he quietly considering making his first major impact with the Trojans by going with an untested Browne, who just might be the better quarterback down the road?

Does the new guy play it safe or take a big risk?

Everyone at USC will be more than a little anxious to find out. You suspect a certain ex-Trojans coach now working in Seattle will be, too.
After a break in action, USC returns to Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field on Tuesday to pick up where it left off after a promising first week of spring drills under Steve Sarkisian.

Much was revealed during those initial three workouts, and here are three key things to keep an eye on as the Trojans go through the remaining practice schedule in March and April.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCody Kessler has adjusted well to USC's uptempo offense this spring.
The continued development of the players in the new systems

Week 1 was all about an uptempo pace as the players got their feet wet in new offensive and defensive schemes at a frenetic pace. To their credit, they appeared to adapt to it all in lightning-quick fashion.

And so, the big question now is just how much further can they come over the course of the next four weeks?

On offense, the progression of the passing game should be particularly interesting to watch. Both Cody Kessler and Max Browne performed solidly in Sarkisian’s hurry-up, shotgun-based offense. As they continue to grow at ease in the new system and develop more chemistry with their receivers, there’s reason to believe the aerial attack has the potential to really take off.

On the other side of the ball, Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 multiple-front defense has been a hit so far, due in large part to some outstanding play in the trenches. The front seven shined throughout the first week, even with Leonard Williams standing on the sideline due to injury. With unique size on the interior and hulking contributors like Delvon Simmons, Antwaun Woods, Kenny Bigelow and Claude Pelon combined with exciting athletes on the outside, this unit should get better and better this spring.

In the secondary, even with Josh Shaw out of action, Keith Heyward’s group has been making some impressive plays in coverage -- something they struggled to do under the prior regime. Will that trend continue? We’ll soon find out.

Competition, competition, competition

When Sarkisian took the reins in early December, one thing he stressed was that virtually every position would be up for grabs. He wanted to create an atmosphere of competition. And with one week of practice in the books, it’s safe to say that is precisely what's happened.

A number of tightly contested position battles have taken shape, none garnering more attention than the one at quarterback between Browne, Kessler and early-entrant freshman Jalen Greene. With some added bulk to his frame and an increased level of confidence, Browne really opened eyes with his play in Week 1, but that doesn’t mean Kessler backed down an inch. A vocal leader of the team, Kessler did a great job of directing the offense down the field with frequent success. He had the poise and command you’d expect from a veteran with 14 starts under his belt. Greene has displayed flashes at times, although he’s taken noticeably fewer snaps than his counterparts, both of whom appear to have a sizeable lead on him in this race.

On defense, the competitions for the two spots on the edge of the line have been the highlight so far. Quinton Powell and Jabari Ruffin are duking it out at SAM linebacker, with Scott Starr and J.R. Tavai battling at rush end. In Week 1, it was Powell and Starr running exclusively with the No. 1 unit, but, really, all four contenders have stood out at times.

Some previously hidden players have also begun to emerge as they’ve received somewhat of a golden opportunity to show what they can do in the new schemes. Powell and Starr are two such examples, as are tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, guard Khaliel Rodgers, tackle Nathan Guertler, cornerback Chris Hawkins and defensive end Simmons.

How physical will Sarkisian allow it to get?

With a new staff in place and a depleted roster (NCAA sanctions) made even more so because of a number of injuries, Sarkisian indicated when he took over at USC that he might not push the envelope too much when it came to live hitting this spring. That was certainly the case in the first week. But as the team progresses through the schedule this month and next, will we see the pads popping with greater frequency at any point?

There are certainly some added benefits that could come with more physical workouts, but there are drawbacks as well. Finding the perfect combination isn’t as easy as it might sound. Just ask Lane Kiffin.

Stay away from full-contact drills completely and you risk fielding a defense that could get pushed around and has tackling issues. That was the case in 2012.

But USC still lacks depth, and if you allow more hitting, you also run the risk of more players getting injured. That happened in 2013.

It’s a decision that could ultimately play a major role in shaping the identity of the team down the line, so it will be interesting to see which way Sarkisian goes here.

Mailbag: Sark vs. Petersen

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
7:00
PM PT
Welcome to the mailbag. I'm feeling the madness. And the because the Pac-12 blog readers are so awesome, they've started up another bracket challenge. I'm in.

To the notes!

D.J. in Berkeley writes: Hey Kevin, I grew up in B1G country, so I'm still a little new to the Pac-12. How does inter-divisional conference scheduling work? Is it like the model that the B1G has used the last few years where each team has protected crossover games and rotating crossover games? I love the annual trips down to LA to play UCLA or USC; I'm just not sure why we play two Pac-12 South teams every year.

Kevin Gemmell: With the nine-game conference schedule, the way it shakes out is you play all five teams in your division, four cross-division games and then three nonconference games.

With the exception of the four California schools, it works on a two-year rotating basis. For example, Utah didn’t play Stanford or Oregon its first two years in the conference. Last year, both teams were back on the rotation and they’ll rotate through all the other schools in the North Division every two years.

The California schools have an agreement to play each other every year -- so Stanford and Cal will always play UCLA and USC.

If the league were to go to an eight-game conference schedule, it would drop one of the cross-division games and only play three. Many are in favor of this since the league guts itself on an annual basis (see the final weeks of last season: Stanford beating Oregon, USC beating Stanford, Arizona beating Oregon). When you play nine conference games, wackiness will ensue.

Personally, I still like the nine-game schedule. It means something when you win the Pac-12. Yes, it’s killed the national perception of the league the last few years. But it makes for some exciting scenarios.


Amanda in Los Angeles writes: Thanks for the live chat with Cody Kessler! What do you think is going to happen at quarterback?

Kevin Gemmell: Very interesting question. And one that has some national significance. Obviously, Kessler’s experience is a huge plus for him. And the fact that Steve Sarkisian has retained Clay Helton is also significant. Kessler, on more than one occasion, went out of his way to talk about how strong his relationship is with Helton and you could see a notable increase in Kessler’s efficiency once Helton started calling the plays.

Then again, Sark was a big Max Browne fan when he was at Samammish, Wash., and recruited him pretty hard to the Huskies. I would guess right now it’s about 60-40 in favor of Kessler. Browne is going to have to show that he can run Sark’s offense with greater efficiency than Kessler. The fact that it’s a newish style, complete with the uptempo element, levels the playing field a bit.

Either way, I wouldn’t expect anything to become official in the spring.


Eric in Terrebonne, Ore., writes: Captain Doctor (it's like having two first names, but with titles …) gets another season for the Beavs, which is great news. With all the depth and talent at LB, will the Beavs have the best corps of linebackers in the conference? Will the LBs be good enough to help improve the run defense?

Kevin Gemmell: Yes, it’s hard not to think of the “Spies Like Us” scene. And yes, it’s great news.

The Pac-12 blog has been a Michael Doctor fan for quite some time. The first time he really stood out to me was in the second game of the 2012 season against UCLA at the Rose Bowl. He posted a team-high eight solo tackles (nine total) and I saw him chase down Brett Hundley on a critical third-and-6 in the fourth quarter that forced a UCLA field goal rather than giving the Bruins a first down.

As noted in the story, Oregon State’s defense had a rough go of things last year -- which was disappointing, considering how strong of a unit it was in 2012, so the fact that he’s been granted a fifth year bodes very well for the Beavers this season.

Do they have the best linebackers in the league? That might be a bit much. UCLA’s is pretty good, as is Stanford’s, USC’s and Washington’s. But Oregon State certainly is deep. The only upside to injuries is that they allow younger players to step in and get some experience. When the injured player comes back, it creates depth at the position. Remember in 2011, when Shayne Skov was lost for the year, A.J. Tarpley was one of the players who stepped in. He returns as one of the top linebackers in the league this year and was a major reason why the Cardinal had all of that depth at linebacker the last few years.

No one wants injuries to happen, obviously. But in this scenario, with Doctor returning, it might work out OK for the Beavers, who gave up a whopping 190.3 yards per game on the ground last season. Only Colorado was worse, allowing 208.5 yards per game. Measure that against the 2012 squad, which was third in the league at 129.5 yards per game. Doctor’s presence should significantly help the Beavers improve in that area.


Andy in Seattle writes: I’m pretty shocked with the results of your Sark/Petersen poll. Why aren’t more Washington fans expecting more out of him?

Kevin Gemmell: Honestly, I’m a little surprised also. Then again, I’m not. Does that make sense?

My first thought is that all the pressure is always going to be on Steve Sarkisian, no matter what, because he’s the head coach at USC. And with that comes an elevated level of expectation.

Then again, Chris Petersen is perceived to be a “home run” hire. What happens if Washington goes 7-6? How quickly will the Washington faithful question the hire? What happens if they only win eight games in 2015? Will Petersen be given enough time to do things his way?

My thought is yes. If it were USC, I think the timetable for success is accelerated dramatically. Washington fans are hungry for their team to take the next step. But I also think they are realistic enough to understand the challenges that Petersen faces in his first couple of seasons -- specifically, rebuilding the offense and plugging some holes.

Sarkisian, on the other hand, isn’t going to get much wiggle room. USC has plenty of athletes. It always does. And the expectation is that the Trojans should compete for the Pac-12 South title every season and win it every of couple -- if not every year.

When I was up at USC last week, I had an interesting discussion with someone who will not be named. They told me the worst thing to ever happen to Lane Kiffin was going 10-2 in 2011. If they only win, say, eight games that year, then all of the pressure and expectations that came crumbling down in 2012 wouldn't have been a factor. Fans would have been more understanding, chalked another eight-win season up to the sanctions, and Kiffin would likely still have his job.

But that goes to show how much tougher things are at USC. So, coming full circle, I guess I’m not too surprised with the poll results.


Kevin in Palo Alto writes: Kevin, lots of new names and faces on the blog. What's that all about?

Kevin Gemmell: Yes, the Pac-12 blog is undergoing a bit of a face-lift. You have already welcomed Kyle Bonagura with open arms, and soon you’ll be welcoming Chantel Jennings. Kyle will serve as our Stanford reporter in the Bay Area and Chantel, formerly of the B1G blog covering Michigan, will be the point person for Oregon. Ted and I are still the Pac-12 reporters, but both of them will pitch in on the blog.

This will also allow Ted and I time to finish our screenplay: “Good Will Blogging.” It’s about a janitor at a to-be-determined Pac-12 blog school who sneaks into the student newspaper at night and writes all of the articles. We’re hoping to get into Sundance by 2031.

Give the duo the same warm reception you gave me when I joined on in 2011. More voices means a better blog.
From coast to coast, at every FBS program across the country, spring football represents a time when those lesser-known performers who have waited in the wings receive the chance to emerge from the shadows.

And at USC, where a new coaching staff with fresh ideas and philosophies has created an atmosphere where every team member is starting out with a clean slate, perhaps no under-the-radar player has made a more pronounced statement with his play this spring -- at least through the first three workouts -- than junior tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick.

Showcasing sure hands and impressive athleticism to go along with a 6-foot-4 and 245-pound frame, Cope-Fitzpatrick -- who made just three receptions in his initial two seasons on campus -- seemed to reel in almost everything thrown in his direction during the first week of drills.

[+] EnlargeJalen Cope-Fitzpatrick
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsTight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick is excited about getting opportunities in the new USC offense.
“I think Jalen has really focused himself on trying to come out and having a good spring,” said USC coach Steve Sarkisian following a particularly strong showing by Cope-Fitzpatrick on Thursday. “He’s an athletic guy, he’s got tremendous ball skills and I think he’s seen a real opportunity to step up and make plays, and he’s doing it.”

That much is certain. With Xavier Grimble and his 69 career catches now off to the NFL draft and the Trojans’ other talented 2013 co-starter at tight end, Randall Telfer, still being held out of action because of injury, Sarkisian has had no other choice but to rely on Cope-Fitzpatrick, and to the former Rocklin (Calif.) Whitney standout's credit, he’s answered the call.

“I feel a lot more focused than before,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said after practice Saturday. “Now that I’m going to be a junior, an upperclassman, I feel like I have the chance to position myself into a starting role. So, I’m really trying to push myself to fill that role and to fill the need of the team, and to just kind of put my head down and work.”

Cope-Fitzpatrick has also seen his responsibilities skyrocket as a direct result of the Trojans’ new up-tempo, no-huddle offense, which places an emphasis on making use of the tight end as weapon in the passing game -- something Sarkisian did with great success at Washington with Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the 2013 John Mackey Award winner.

For Cope-Fitzpatrick, the switch from former coach Lane Kiffin’s offense, which didn’t utilize the tight end as a receiving threat on a consistent basis, to Sarkisian’s offense was welcomed, to say the least.

In fact, the only negative for Cope-Fitzpatrick so far is that Grimble -- who, along with Telfer, played an important role as a mentor throughout the last two years -- isn’t around to reap the rewards.

“I’m upset my big brother, Xavier, isn’t back,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “I really wish that he came back so all three of us could enjoy the fruits of this new system. It’s very tight end-friendly. I’m excited, and I think the tight ends are going to do really big things.”

Come fall camp, the Trojans will also insert highly touted Class of 2014 signee Bryce Dixon into the mix, adding another exciting piece to a group that, in addition to Cope-Fitzpatrick and Telfer, will also feature walk-ons Chris Willson, Shane Sullivan, Teddy Baker and Connor Spears.

New tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo has already made a positive impression on Cope-Fitzpatrick. A former Huskies quarterback who also played for the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets before embarking on his coaching career, Tuiasosopo commands a special level of respect. Cope-Fitzpatrick was already very familiar with Tuiasosopo before he landed at USC as an assistant.

“He’s great. I definitely see a lot of Raider in him, and being a Raiders fan, I’ve always liked that attitude growing up,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “He’s just a positive guy, and he pushes me and really wants me to succeed. It’s great to have that kind of support. I’m really learning a lot from him, especially when it comes to the complexities of the offense. He has a quarterback’s mind, so he’s really helping me with reading defenses.”

With the promise that Cope-Fitzpatrick has shown this month, there’s certainly reason for optimism when it comes to his future. But with only three practice sessions in the books this spring, he’s not about to get ahead of himself, and he freely admits that he still has much to learn and a whole lot more to prove as he makes a bid to take on an expanded role in the USC offense in 2014.

“I just want to continue to develop,” Cope-Fitzpatrick said. “One thing that I really want to work on is just getting the offense down, just really being on top of stuff so I can play that much faster. And then once I learn the offense, I can start critiquing the little things. But right now, it’s just about taking baby steps.”
The Trojans completed the first week of spring ball practices on Saturday with a physical and spirited session in pads.

“It was a good week of work and now we’ll take time off for spring break,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. “We put in a lot over the past three days and I thought we hit a little bit of a wall at the end of the day today. We wanted to put a lot on them mentally this week and I thought we were able to gather a great deal of information.

“We were able to set a tone and let them understand the tempo. Hopefully spring break will give the players a chance to step back with that understanding of what is expected. When we come back after break, we’ll spend time focusing again on the details and fundamentals of our day one installations.”

USC will return to the practice field on March 25.

One of the key areas to watch during the opening week was the impact of the no-huddle, up-tempo offensive style that Sarkisian brought with him from Washington. It is a noticeably faster pace that had multiple players fatigued by the end of the Saturday session on a warm Southern California afternoon. Sarkisian said it is all part of the adjustment process for the players but he also had some words of warning.

“I definitely expect the players to do some conditioning on break,” Sarkisian said. “It will be a tough Tuesday for them when they come back if they don’t. Not only the players but the coaches need to do some running too, it’s a spring break for them as well. For a lot of the coaches it will be a chance to get settled with their families and then we will be doing a lot of personnel evaluations.”

With three days’ worth of practice film to study, a staff that includes seven new coaches will use that time to familiarize themselves even more with the USC players. Sarkisian commented on a few of the evaluations that have been made so far based on what he’s seen on the practice field.

“We’re really athletic on defense,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve got long body types who can make plays, guys like Quinton Powell and Jabari Ruffin.

"The physicality up front really jumps out too, we’ve got some big guys who take up a lot of space.

“As far as the quarterback situation, we saw glimpses of positives and glimpses of guys who are learning a new system. I’ve never waited until fall, as an assistant or head coach, to make a decision on a quarterback. I’ve always made the decision in spring but that doesn’t mean we have to do that now. If we can do now, great, if we have to wait that is fine too. When we get to decision we’ll take another day just to make sure, and then we’ll make an announcement.”

Notes
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