USC Trojans: Steve Sarkisian

Spring impressions from USC 

April, 20, 2014
Apr 20
11:00
AM PT
It is a new regime with a fresh start, but in the end, those hoping to get a true feel for Steve Sarkisian’s brand of USC football were no more successful than the Trojans’ inept offense in Saturday’s yawn-inspiring spring game.

All those weeks of uptempo, no-huddle practice led to that? Really?

We all know the priority was to not get anyone seriously hurt on Saturday. But you don’t come out in front of some 17,000 fans on a sun-splashed afternoon in the Coliseum and offer little, if any, excitement. You don’t finish the day without scoring even one touchdown.


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USC fans showed up at the Coliseum on Saturday for the annual spring game hoping to see the new up-tempo offense on full display but were instead treated to an old-fashioned showing of bend-but-don’t-break defense.

Using a modified scoring system, the Trojans ran roughly 100 plays of live tackling within a structured practice format that allowed for multiple teaching periods. The USC defense starred, not allowing the offense into the end zone.

“First of all, it was an awesome day of football,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. “We got to be out here in the Coliseum with our fans on a beautiful day. It was our first spring game together, and it looked that way. On offense, there were some good plays, and some not-so-good plays. I really thought our defense played well, particularly in the red zone.”

Hayes Pullard got things started for the defense on the opening drive with a tackle for loss on third-and-goal to force a 24-yard field goal from Andre Heidari. Leon McQuay III added a physical hit near the goal line to prevent a potential touchdown reception by George Katrib and Gerald Bowman added a nice pass break-up. There were also a lot of sacks, as Claude Pelon picked up two while J.R. Tavai, Scott Starr, Charles Burks, Greg Townsend Jr., and Nick Schlossberg notched one each.

If you are looking for more bright spots from the Trojans, look no further than Heidari. The Trojans placekicker hit on four of five field goal attempts, with a long of 44 yards.

Things did not go as smoothly for the offense. The quarterbacks went a combined 15-for-37 for 223 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. It’s hard to say that anybody really stood out from the group -- starting QB Cody Kessler was 5-of-10 for 86 yards -- although true freshman Jalen Greene opened more than a few eyes with flashes of his athleticism. Tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick was the leading receiver with three catches for 56 yards, while walk-on James Toland led all rushers with 36 yards on eight carries.

“I hope the offense is more efficient in fall camp,” Sarkisian said. “Historically we’ve been very strong in the red zone wherever I’ve coached. To be a good team we can’t have a third of our squad on the sidelines with injuries like we had today. We didn’t have any serious injuries during the practice so that was good news. We’ve just got to make sure we’re healthy when the season rolls around, because that’s when it’s really important.”
Four more spring games are set for Saturday, at which point more than half the Pac-12 will be done with spring ball. You know what that means ... the countdown to fall camp begins!

Here is quick peek at the four games being played this weekend:

Arizona State

Where: Sun Devil Stadium
Kickoff: 11 a.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Arizona (replays throughout the week)

What to watch: When there are steaks on the line, like there will be in this one, you can pretty much guarantee a competitive atmosphere. Instead of an offense vs. defense scoring system, coach Todd Graham broke up the team with a good amount of starters on each side. Starting quarterback Taylor Kelly will lead the maroon team and Mike Bercovici will quarterback the gold team, but the with nine starters departed off last season's defense, it's that side of the ball that will be worth paying attention to. Running back D.J. Foster, who has battled a minor toe sprain throughout the spring, will see limited action despite a clean bill of health. Former Arizona State quarterback Jake Plummer will serve as the analyst on the Pac-12 Arizona broadcast.

USC

Where: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Kickoff: 3 p.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Networks (replays throughout the week)

What to watch: It would have been a lot more fun if coach Steve Sarkisian waited until after the spring game to announce Cody Kessler as the starting quarterback. That way everyone could have overanalyzed the competition based on one meaningless game. But really, who are we kidding? The overanalyzation will go on regardless -- and Sarkisian did leave the door open for Max Browne to work his way back into the mix. It'll be interesting to watch both Kessler and Browne operate the up-tempo offense Sarkisian brought with him from Washington and how a rebuilt offensive line stacks up against a talented defensive front. The guys from WeAreSC kick around much more to pay attention to in this roundtable discussion.

Utah

Where: Rice-Eccles Stadium
Kickoff: 1 p.m. MT
TV: Pac-12 Mountain (replays throughout the week)

What to watch: It'll be good to see quarterback Travis Wilson back under center in a game-like situation again, and even more intriguing because he'll be running new coordinator Dave Christensen's offense against the Utes' base defense. While the setting won't showcase the depths of the playbook, the Cliffs Notes version should provide enough to develop a better understanding of how things will be different next season. The clock will operate as it would in a regular game during a pair of 10-minute quarters in the first half and will use a running clock in the second half after an eight-minute halftime. If you're planning on attending, a food competition and MUSS football game will be held at 11 a.m. MT, with an alumni football game to follow at noon.

Washington

Where: Husky Stadium
Kickoff: 1 p.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Washington (replays throughout the week)

What to watch: Is Shaq Thompson the new Myles Jack? It has been a major storyline in Seattle throughout the spring how the talented linebacker -- and former minor-league baseball player -- is working with the offense. And after watching his some of his high school highlights, it's understandable why new coach Chris Petersen is intrigued by letting him go both ways. Any time there's a brand new coaching staff, the spring game carries a little extra sizzle, but it should also be noted those games aren't necessarily always as telling due to the lack of time the players have spent with the staff. It's a lot of fundamentals, a lot of evaluation, and the scope of what is accomplished is different when compared with schools with established staffs that are familiar with their rosters. Petersen has installed about 50 percent of the playbook. With Cyler Miles still suspended, quarterbacks Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams top the depth chart and will make their cases to replace the departed Keith Price.
USC coach Steve Sarkisian named Cody Kessler his starting quarterback this week, though he noted that Kessler will have to continue to defend the position against competition from redshirt freshman Max Browne during fall camp.

It wasn't a big surprise. After all, Kessler was the 2013 starter and acquitted himself fairly well, particularly over the second half of the season with Clay Helton calling plays instead of deposed coach Lane Kiffin.

Still, Sarkisian is following in the philosophical footsteps of his mentor, Pete Carroll, who believed it was best to name a starting quarterback by the end of spring practices.

As we've noted a few times, Carroll called this "anointing." He believed that by anointing a starting quarterback in the spring, that allowed the QB to carry authority into the offseason. Teammates would recognize the crown on his head, as they might not if two or more candidates officially remained on even footing.

The anointing ended intrigue. It ended media speculation players would read. It ended an offseason rivalry that might split players into bailiwicks, based on personal preferences both on and off the field.

So Sarkisian has his way of doing it.

Then there's most other coaches. They prefer keeping their cards close to their chests. They like the intrigue. They like the prolonged competition. They want to measure offseason work and mental toughness. Who gets better from April to August? Who seems to take control of the locker room or huddle on his own, without the anointing from a coach?

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Is it better to announce a starting quarterback after spring practices or wait until the end of fall camp?

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Discuss (Total votes: 946)

So we have the two true QB competitions in the Pac-12 this spring: Arizona and Washington, where neither Rich Rodriguez nor Chris Petersen is likely to give us a firm idea of their starter until perhaps as late as the week before the season opener.

Of course, there's not 100 percent purity of approach here. If Kessler hadn't outplayed Browne, Sarkisian almost certainly wouldn't have made an announcement. And if Rodriguez or Petersen were sitting on an Andrew Luck-type talent right now, they probably would go ahead and pull the trigger and announce him as the No. 1 guy.

Fact is, the present consensus is neither Arizona nor Washington has any clear pecking order. The Wildcats have four guys who didn't separate themselves this spring, and the Huskies still have to see where the suspended Cyler Miles, the 2013 backup, fits into their plans.

Yet there is a clear philosophical difference here.

So what do you think? Is it better to anoint a starting QB after spring practices in order to give him a leadership role over the summer, or is it better to wait as long as possible to foster uncertainty and, therefore, continued competition?
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LOS ANGELES -- When the day comes that USC football needs a culture change, touchdowns will be worth 10 points, swine will take to flight and I’ll win a Brad Pitt look-alike contest.

USC football is a culture unto itself. It knows what it is with its 11 national championships, 32 bowl wins and six Heisman Trophy winners. Changing coaches doesn't have to be synonymous with changing culture, especially after you won 10 games the previous season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsNew USC coach Steve Sarkisian is embracing the school's standard for winning.
Perhaps a culture restoration might be in order, however, following a tumultuous 2013 that fractured the fan base and divided the devout.

Enter Steve Sarkisian, a top lieutenant of the Pete Carroll era who left to make his mark in the Pacific Northwest and returns to Troy unfazed by the championship-or-bust mentality.

"All of these guys come here to be the best, and that reminded me why I came back here. I want to be the best," Sarkisian said. "This place breeds that environment, that culture. That jumps out at you the moment you are on campus.

"You can go back 50 years of USC football. Every decade they have gone on a run: The 2000s and the run that Pete [Carroll] had; the 90s and what Coach [John] Robinson was able to do; The 80s, the era there with Rodney Peete and everything, and the early 80s what they were doing into the 70s with Coach [John] McKay and the run that he had and into the 60s, and it goes on. I just feel like now is our time. We’re about due for another run. Here we go, and we’ve got half the decade left to do it. I have a firm belief that we can because history tells us that we should."

Of course, that run can’t start until the Trojans officially kick off the 2014 season on Aug. 30 against Fresno State. In the meantime, there is only so much the new coaching staff can do to win back the hearts and minds of skeptics still smarting the final mediocre months of the Lane Kiffin era.

Public opinion was already down following a massively disappointing 7-6 season in 2012. It crested when Kiffin was fired following a blowout loss to Arizona State in the fifth game of last season. That begat the brief Ed Orgeron era, which included a 6-2 record -- though losses to rivals Notre Dame and UCLA were contributing factors to Orgeron not getting the job. After Sarkisian was announced as coach, Orgeron stepped down and Clay Helton led the Trojans to a 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Helton was retained as offensive coordinator, and, at least for now, there is stability in the football office.

With crippling sanctions in the past, Sarkisian & Co. made a huge national statement by landing the league’s top-ranked recruiting class, which included lauded prospects Adoree' Jackson, Juju Smith and Damien Mama. Sarkisian has opened up spring ball to the public and done everything possible to reunite the fan base.

"Ultimately, it’s going on the field and performing and doing what we’re here to do and that’s win football games," Sarkisian said. "Are we going to try to win them all? There’s no doubt we are. Are we going to win them all? I don’t know. I don’t know. The football is shaped a funny way for that very reason. It bounces in funny directions sometimes. But you have to put yourself in position to be successful, and I think we’re doing that."

Helton, one of just two holdovers from the Kiffin era (along with receivers coach Tee Martin), understands the expectations from his time on campus. Even defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who was Sarkisian’s defensive coordinator at Washington, is prepared for the fact that a 10-win season might not be good enough for USC’s standards. In his mind, those expectations shouldn’t be daunting. They should be embraced.

"If that’s what you’re worried about, then you don’t come here," Wilcox said. "That’s what you sign up for. We expect to win. We should be good. We should win championships. I don’t think about like that [as daunting]. If I did, or if any of us did, we shouldn’t come here. But every one of us jumped at the opportunity to come here. The expectations are extremely high, but that doesn’t change how we operate. That wouldn’t say much about you as a coach: 'Now you’re really going to work hard because you're at USC.' It shouldn’t matter if it’s Division III or high school or USC. You coach to be the best you can be."

Lunch links: Any sleeper teams?

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
11:30
AM PT
Love is a burning thing, and it makes a fiery ring;
Bound by wild desire, I fell into a ring of fire.

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.
 

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