This time last year, spring ball went a little something like this: The Trojans would run a play, then former head coach Lane Kiffin and his staff would take several minutes to break it down. Then they would run another play, wash, rinse and repeat. The beloved Pete Carroll coached in a similar manner, as did the coaches before him. This had been the norm at USC for year, and to a large degree, it worked out just fine.
Then Steve Sarkisian became the head coach, and the whole game changed.
The uptempo offense Sarkisian is installing at USC has dominated storylines since his introductory press conference back in December...and for good reason. The Trojans are one of the few Pac-12 schools to still run a pro-style offense, and many feared that too much change would be disastrous for a program known for its aggressive, bruising power offense.
By this point, it's become pretty clear that USC will still utilize its traditional scheme and that the uptempo elements will just rejuvenate the offense, making it more competitive.
It's hard to really conceptualize how much faster the new offense is than the one we're used to seeing. The Los Angeles Daily News' Scott Wolf puts things in perspective:
#USC coach Steve Sarkisian said the Trojans have run 1,000 plays in 9 practices— InsideUSC (@InsideUSC) April 5, 2014
#USC coach Steve Sarkisian said if you include walk-throughs, the Trojans have run about 2,000 plays— InsideUSC (@InsideUSC) April 5, 2014
That breaks down to roughly 111 plays per 90-minute scrimmage, and 1.23 plays per minute. That's similar to the break-neck pace established by the Oregon Ducks, who ran 2.83 plays per minute in 2012, according to SB Nation's Football Study Hall.
While USC is not looking to install its own version of "The Blur," the increased pace is pretty remarkable. Previously, the Trojans might run one play every five minutes during practices.
The Trojans have never moved so quickly on the field, and with speedy playmakers like Buck Allen, Nelson Agholor, Tre Madden and Darreus Rogers in the ranks, the heightened pace stands to make USC's offense even more threatening.
For the quarterbacks, the new attack really enhances the nature of the position battle. The signal-caller who picks up his responsibilities and carries them out with the most efficiency and fewest hiccups will be crowned QB No. 1, and through three weeks, Cody Kessler commands the advantage over Max Browne.
Last season, Kessler blossomed from a timid presence in the pocket to a playmaker, and the flexibility of the new scheme enhances his abilities to do just that. "Sark" has already noted how quickly Kessler is releasing the football and hitting his hot route, an improvement from last season, where he would sometimes hang on to the ball for too long.
Things are still coming together, but it appears the uptempo scheme is bringing out the best in both Kessler and Browne.
And it's not just the quarterbacks who are benefiting from the change of pace.
Sarkisian spoke with the media after Saturday's scrimmage, and highlighted a trio of athletes who stand to be especially lethal in the new scheme:
Steve Sarkisian said WRs Darreus Rogers, Nelson Agholor and TB Javorius Allen are players capable of creating mismatches next season #USC— InsideUSC (@InsideUSC) April 4, 2014
Additionally, offensive coordinator Clay Helton spoke about the tight ends, saying there's "no question" that they will have a more prominent role in the new offense.
#USC OC Clay Helton said this group of players fits the new uptempo offense perfectly.— Ryan Abraham (@insidetroy) April 5, 2014
The transition the Trojans are going through is unfolding as smoothly as any new coach could hope for, especially one dealing with the injury woes and depth limitations that Sarkisian has inherited.
That said, the quickened pace is certainly having an impact on the team.
"They're really winded [afterwards], but they're having fun with it," senior tight end Randall Telfer said. He's sitting out spring ball while nursing a knee injury, but he's out there every day, learning through observation.
"We run five or six plays in the time it took to run three or four. There's a big emphasis on 'next play' mentality'," he said.
It's a good thing for the offensive players, because it means they can showcase their talents more frequently.
"More plays equals more yards," Telfer said.
On defense, things are coming along well for coordinator Justin Wilcox and his players, though there is still a lot of work to be done. Wilcox told Garry Paskwietz of ESPN that right now the defense starts scrimmages strong, but there's a tendency for them to fade as the session wears on:
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.
Some of the defensive hangups can be attributed to the absence of veterans who are being held out to preserve them for the fall. Furthermore, the Trojans aren't tackling much, something that has been common in Troy throughout the sanction era.
Wilcox touched on how the Trojans are dealing with that this season:
You would love to practice [live tackling] all the time, but you have to be smart about the way you do it. 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.
More physical practices are on the horizon for USC, but for right now, getting the scheme installed—and making sure the team can keep up with it—is the priority.
Next week the Trojans take to the Coliseum for the annual spring game, and when they do, we will get our first true glimpse of what the new-look offense can do.