Up-Tempo Offense Steve Sarkisian Introduced at Washington Will Be a Hit at USC

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Up-Tempo Offense Steve Sarkisian Introduced at Washington Will Be a Hit at USC
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

At this introductory press conference last week, new USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said his soon-to-be players "should be excited to play in" the brand of offense he brings from Washington. 

Indeed, USC has a lot to look forward to with the arrival of a hurry-up, no-huddle scheme. The Trojans have long been identified with the traditional, pro-style offense and Sarkisian contributed to the legend. As an assistant there in the 2000s, he worked with offenses that set quarterbacks under the center and dared opposing defenses to stop them at the line of scrimmage.

There’s certainly still a place for that style in college football, but the landscape is changing. The proliferation of hurry-up and spread offenses is evident around the Pac-12, but even in the SEC—a conference that arbiters of so-called “big boy football” call home—two hurry-up teams played for the league championship.  

Recognizing the need for a more modern look at Washington, Sarkisian began introducing the hurry-up last spring. The Huskies saw across-the-board gains in its offensive production from 2012 to 2013. They improved their point-per-game yield from 24 to 38.5, and a jump from No. 88 in the nation to No. 18. 

The change also benefited quarterback Keith Price. With defenses on their heels from the rapid-fire tempo, Price was spared some of the pressure and thus the turnovers that plagued him in 2012. He threw just five interceptions in 11 games this season, compared to 24 combined in the previous two campaigns.

 “You see [opposing defenses] are not able to do a whole lot of things when you're going fast,” Price explained to the Associated Press in September.

USC quarterback Cody Kessler could make his own strides in the up-tempo system.  Kessler turned a corner midway through the 2013 season, in part because of his improved decision-making on the fly.

His ability to make quick reads against blitzes prevented sacks he might have taken earlier in the year, and allowed explosive teammates like Nelson Agholor and Buck Allen to make plays in space.

While no one will confuse Kessler for Johnny Manziel, the USC quarterback is also mobile enough to adjust when plays break down, a trait that came in handy in the Trojans’ signature win over Stanford last month.

Implementing a hurry-up system won’t be without its challenges.  

"I've heard that there's a lot of different verbiage," Kessler said at last week's press conference. 

However, Washington wide receiver Kasen Williams told The Seattle Times part of what made the offense flow is its simplicity. Because snaps have to come quickly before the defense is able to adjust, the calls have to come quickly.

“Last year, (one) play would be ‘X Go Z Dover Y Go blah, blah, blah.’ It would be all that,” Williams said. “Now it’s just ‘Fonzie.’”

Kessler will face a steep learning curve in the offseason, but the changes don't mean a complete abandonment of qualities that defined USC for years. 

The system Sarkisian introduces is the right blend of old-school sensibilities with the new-school twist. One of the more traditional spins to his version of the hurry-up offense is emphasis on tight ends as receivers.

Washington had one of the conference’s best in Austin Seferian-Jenkins. At USC, Sarkisian has Xavier Grimble. Grimble told The Los Angeles Times Tuesday he is leaning to a return for his senior season. 

With the burner Agholor lined up wide and commanding defense’s attention, Grimble should be a pass-catching magnet in the middle of the field. He has the potential to excel in a USC no-huddle much in the same way Fred Davis stood out in Sarkisian’s pro style in 2007.

The other and perhaps more significant traditional facet of Sarkisian’s new philosophy is its reliance on what he called “a power run game.”

Such a description may inspire visions of offenses breaking the huddle, lining up opposite a stacked box and the running back pounding forward methodically—that "big boy" brand, as it were.

However, the no-huddle haven that is the Pac-12 was home to some of the nation's most productive ball-carriers in 2013. Two of particular note are Doak Walker Award finalists Ka'Deem Carey, who played for no-huddle pioneer Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, and Bishop Sankey, Sarkisian's pupil at Washington. 

Both embodied the power-run style within the confines of a more modern scheme. The resulting combination of a physical run game and more snaps per possession is a double-whammy for defenses—a flurry of jabs that sets up the knockout punch. 

Buck Allen and Tre Madden are backs of a similar mold. And with two capable rushers returning to the fold, the hurry-up could unleash a two-headed monster reminiscent of the mid-2000s in a true measure of past-meets-present.  

 

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