5 Things Steve Sarkisian Must Change at USC in Year 1
The Lane Kiffin era at USC ended later than many Trojans fans would have liked, and even with a spirited effort by interim head coach Ed Orgeron in leading the the team to double-digit wins, the program went with now-former Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian.
Sark, you might recall, served on the Trojans' staff during the Pete Carroll era and played a major role in the grooming of many great quarterbacks.
While the squad is certainly stocked with top-tier talent, a lack of depth from NCAA sanctions has played a big role in recent underachievement. Soundly beating a one-loss Fresno State club in the Las Vegas Bowl should give Sark momentum heading into the offseason, but there's still a steep hill to climb in Year 1.
For starters, beating UCLA and Notre Dame should be a top priority. But beyond that, the team is in need of a makeover. Perhaps not a full-blown, flip-the-program-upside-down makeover, but changes need to be made for Troy to regain the stature it had in the previous decade as one of the best teams in the country.
Here are five things Sarkisian must change in his first full year as the head coach of USC.
All stats via ESPN.
Elite Quarterback Play
Great quarterbacks and USC go together like peanut butter and jelly.
At least, that's what recent history suggests, with back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners in Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart followed by John David Booty, Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley, each of whom made it to the NFL.
But after Barkley ended his career with the Trojans in 2012, the team was left with Max Wittek, Cody Kessler and true freshman Max Browne as viable starting options. Kessler got the nod, and to his credit, he showed a lot of improvement throughout the season.
After not throwing more than two touchdowns in a game all year, Kessler tallied four in the 45-20 win over the Bulldogs in Las Vegas.
Perhaps it was a sign of things to come, but Sarkisian must turn the quarterback position into one of strength, something for which opponents need to game-plan. This season, defensive coordinators could plan to keep tabs on Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor and assume that Kessler would be unable to win the game on his own.
As mentioned, Kessler improved down the stretch, but he threw for only 174 yards and a touchdown in the final game of the regular season, a 35-14 loss to UCLA. Maybe he's still the guy moving forward, or maybe Sark will elect to try out the promising Browne.
Either way, the starting quarterback at USC is one of the elite spots in all of sports, and Sarkisian must make sure it becomes one that opponents fear once again.
If there's one thing that separated USC from everyone else in the '00s, it was a team swagger that emanated throughout whichever stadium the Trojans marched into.
After the firing of Lane Kiffin, interim coach Ed Orgeron seemed to bring some of that swagger back, and the Trojans won six out of their first seven games under his direction before the loss to the Bruins.
Part of being an elite team in college football is knowing the line between confidence and cockiness and toeing it like an Olympic gymnast.
The best USC teams in the past would strut into road venues, look like they were going to embarrass you in front of your home fans, and then proceed to do so.
The current Trojans may not be good enough to do that on a regular basis, but they need to at least believe they can win the big games. Aside from the victory over Stanford, USC failed to eclipse any of the marquee teams on its schedule.
And with the Cardinal, you're almost guaranteed a close game with their style of football. Even Oregon State went toe-to-toe with David Shaw's team.
Obviously, without a conference title in five years, USC has no right to strut around like it owns the league. But the Trojans have to regain some of the confidence that the great teams had. If Sarkisian can have his guys ready to go each and every week and believing that they can and will beat teams like Arizona State and UCLA, it will go a long way toward a return to prominence.
Strike Fear into Opponents
If you'll bear with me for a moment, I have a short story. It was the year 2002, and after starting the season 6-0, the Oregon Ducks appeared poised to return to a BCS bowl game after winning the Fiesta Bowl following the 2001 season. A 45-42 loss to Arizona State dampened those dreams, and a week later, the Trojans flattened them altogether, winning 44-33 in Autzen.
As I walked out of the stadium, there was an eerie feeling about what everyone just witnessed: USC was back. There was the sense that the Trojans were on the verge of something special.
Of course, USC went on to dominate most of the college football world over the next six seasons.
The point is that those USC teams used to be truly feared. After that day, I never looked at USC in the same way. No matter how good you were, you could probably mark an "L" next to the USC game before the season even started.
Much like the previous slide on team swagger, making opponents fear you isn't going to happen overnight. But with the talent Sarkisian has to work with, a few big performances that reverberate around the college football world can begin to recreate that aura.
No one is going to be "scared" to play USC next year. But Sarkisian must be ready to bring it in Year 1, and if he can begin to build up the reputation the Trojans once had, opponents may start to fear the cardinal and gold as if Reggie Bush were running away in the open field toward yet another Rose Bowl.
If it sounds like we're referring back to the Pete Carroll era a little too often, it's because that group set the standard for where USC wants to be again in the future.
Looking at those teams, one thing that stands out immediately is the amount of firepower on offense, specifically in terms of quick-strike capabilities. From Reggie Bush to Dwayne Jarrett to Joe McKnight and Steve Smith, USC could drown opponents in a hurry.
We're not saying the 2013 Trojans don't have that ability, because one look at Marqise Lee in the open field proves it. But the current offense, when it struggled this season, lacked the explosion from both the wide receivers and running backs.
Toward the end of the year, Javorius Allen started to make things happen on the ground and a healthy Lee opened up the passing attack on the outside.
But for USC to get back to where it was, it needs to have those household names that fans in Pennsylvania can rattle off without hesitation. Those guys who are as dangerous as they come in the entire sport.
Let's assume, for a moment, that those guys exist on the roster, because they probably do. Just look at wide receivers Darreus Rogers and Victor Blackwell, both of whom ooze talent.
In his first season, Sarkisian needs to find consistency on offense. But part of that is discovering a big-play ability that forces defense to account for it at all times. If opponents know that you can reel off several big plays in a row, it changes the way the defense is played and opens up the the rest of the offense.
Sark must showcase a big-play ability right off the bat in 2014, which should lead to a more productive offense altogether.
Offensive Line Play
Matt and Ryan Kalil, Sam Baker, Winston Justice, Charles Brown and Tyron Smith. Those are just a handful of names that have contributed to USC's reputation as an offensive line factory.
The unit wasn't very good in 2013, allowing 30 sacks of Cody Kessler, putting him 10th worst in that category. The Trojans also rushed for just 172 yards a game, which was the 60th-best mark of the regular season.
In short, USC needs to get better play out of its offensive line in order to have a shot at winning the Pac-12 South.
In fact, more than everything else on this list, solid line play should be Sark's top priority.
A team filled with great skill players and a terrible offensive line will often struggle, while a mediocre team with a dominant line can still be great.
Fortunately, the Trojans have many of those skill players in place already.
But they'll need guys like Max Tuerk, Nico Falah and Cyrus Hobbi to fulfill their enormous potential. If the offensive line can take even just a few steps forward, it will do wonders for an offense that has no excuse for averaging fewer than 30 points per game.