To recapture the glory of its teams of the 2000s, USC turns to a coach who helped make the last decade a success: Steve Sarkisian.
The Trojans' new head coach was USC's quarterbacks coach from 2001 through 2006 with a one-year hiatus in 2004. He then doubled as offensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008.
"After being here as an assistant coach for seven years with some tremendous experiences, to now be back as a head coach, it's humbling," Sarkisian said at last month's Pac-12 media days. "When you start thinking about John McKay and John Robinson and Pete Carroll, and to think that you're in that position now...I'm humbled by it, but also [a job] that I'm proud [to have]."
In his return to Heritage Hall, Sarkisian aims to restore the standard set by the Trojans teams he assisted. The conference landscape is much different now than when Sarksian left for the head coaching position at Washington, however.
Oregon and Stanford moved to the head of the Pac-12 after USC lost former head coach Pete Carroll to the NFL and the NCAA levied substantial sanctions on the Trojans. The conference also added a bevy of new head coaches to help make it arguably the most top-to-bottom competitive league in the nation.
To keep up, Sarkisian is tweaking the Trojans' offensive scheme. He's also introducing an array of first-year contributors from USC's highly ranked 2014 recruiting class, ready to make an immediate impact in the program's pursuit of its first championship since Sarkisian's last season there.
|Title||Name||Years With Team|
|Head Coach||Steve Sarkisian||1|
|Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach||Clay Helton||5|
|Defensive Coordinator||Justin Wilcox||1|
|Assoc. Head Coach Offense/Tight Ends Coach||Marques Tuiasosopo||1|
|Asst. Head Coach/Special Team Coordinator/Running Backs Coach||Johnny Nansen||1|
|Pass Game Coordinator/Wide Receivers Coach||Tee Martin||3|
|Run Game Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach||Tim Drevno||1|
|Pass Game Coordinator/Defensive Backs Coach||Keith Heyward||1|
|Assoc. Head Coach Defense/Recruiting Coordinator/Linebackers Coach||Peter Sirmon||1|
|Defensive Line||Chris Wilson||1|
|Defensive Administrative Assistant||Ricky Brown||1|
|Offensive Administrative||Kyle DeVan||1|
|Offensive Assistant||Jaron Fairman||2|
|Defensive Assistant||Patrick Henderson||1|
|Defensive Administrative Assistant||Keynodo Hudson||1|
|Offensive Administrative Assistant||Steve Murillo||1|
|Defensive Assistant||Drew Pearson||1|
|Offensive Administrative Assistant||Lenny Vandermade||1|
|Eric Ziskin||Director of Football Scouting||1|
Sarkisian brings a largely new staff to USC in his first year. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Clay Helton and wide receivers coach Tee Martin are the lone holdovers from the core group.
Justin Wilcox established himself as one of the conference's premier defensive coordinators in two seasons at Washington, transforming a porous defense into one of the Pac-12's best.
New assistant head coach and running backs coach Johnny Nansen was with Sarkisian all five seasons at Washington. In 2013, Nansen worked with running back Bishop Sankey in his 1,870-yard, 20-touchdown campaign.
A completely new addition is offensive line coach Tim Drevno. As an assistant to Jim Harbaugh, Drevno helped the San Francisco 49ers to NFL playoff appearances in each of the last three seasons and a Super Bowl appearance in 2013.
What to Watch for on Offense
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|QB||Cody Kessler||Max Browne||Jalen Greene|
|RB||Javorius "Buck" Allen||Tre Madden||Justin Davis|
|WR||Nelson Agholor||Victor Blackwell||Rahshead Johnson|
|WR||Darreus Rogers||George Farmer||John "JuJu" Smith|
|WR||Ajene Harris||Steven Mitchell||Adoree' Jackson|
|TE||Randall Telfer||Bryce Dixon||Chris Wilson|
|FB||Soma Vainuku||Jahleel Pinner|
|LT||Chad Wheeler||Nico Falah|
|LG||Toa Lobendahn||Jordan Simmons||Damien Mama|
|C||Max Tuerk||Toa Lobendahn||Giovanni Di Poalo|
|RG||Damien Mama||Aundrey Walker||Khaliel Rodgers|
|RT||Zach Banner||Nathan Guertler||Aundrey Walker|
Sarkisian's introduction of a hurry-up, no-huddle scheme dominated offseason chatter. The new system marks a dramatic departure for USC, which has long been associated with a particular brand of pro-style football.
Of course, the hurry-up was a departure for Sarkisian at one point too. Last September, he reminisced on current Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin visiting Washington while Sumlin held the same position at Houston.
"At the time, I didn’t think we were ready from a depth standpoint," he added. "I held onto some of [Sumlin's] thoughts and reason."
Despite his influence, don't anticipate USC's hurry-up offense to look much like Sumlin's at Texas A&M. The power-football principles that long defined the Trojans will remain in place, beginning with a potent run game.
A three-man running back corps of Javorius "Buck" Allen, Justin Davis and Tre Madden gives USC one of the most talented and versatile backfields in the nation.
Allen and Madden were the No. 1 back at different points in 2013, each going for more than 700 yards. Allen filled the primary ball-carrying role midway through the season after Madden sustained a hamstring injury, and he capitalized with 14 rushing touchdowns on the campaign.
Don't overlook the speedy and explosive Davis, however. The sophomore is fast establishing himself as a potential No. 1 option with an impressive fall camp.
Steve Sarkisian said RB Justin Davis was better in the team's scrimmages than any other players in position group.— Rahshaun Haylock (@RHaylock) August 21, 2014
The Trojans' multifaceted run game will help set the table for quarterback Cody Kessler, entering his second season as the starter.
After a shaky start to 2013, in which he initially shared snaps with the since-transferred Max Wittek, Kessler flourished late in the season. Aiding in his late-season development was his connection with wide receiver Nelson Agholor, which produced more than 900 yards and six touchdowns.
Agholor enters the 2014 season as one of the most celebrated wideouts in the Pac-12. His breakaway speed and electrifying moves power the USC passing attack.
What to Watch for on Defense
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|DT||Claude Pelon||Delvon Simmons|
|DE||Leonard Williams||Greg Townsend||Jeff Miller|
|NT||Antwaun Woods||Delvon Simmons||Claude Pelon|
|LB||Hayes Pullard||Michael Hutchings||Olajuwon Tucker|
|LB||Anthony Sarao||Lamar Dawson||Uchenna Nwosu|
|LB||Scott Felix||Quinton Powell||Su'a Cravens|
|LB||J.R. Tavai||Scott Felix||Charles Burks|
|S||Leon McQuay III||Gerald Bowman||Matt Lopes|
|S||Su'a Cravens||Gerald Bowman||John Plattenburg|
|CB||Chris Hawkins||Kevon Seymour||Devian Shelton|
|CB||Josh Shaw||Kevon Seymour||Adoree' Jackson|
Wilcox inherited a defense at Washington that was among the nation's worst. In the Huskies' final game before Wilcox's arrival, the 2011 Alamo Bowl, they surrendered 67 points to Baylor.
However, in just one season, Washington shaved 11.7 points per game off its average. By year two, the Huskies were another 1.4 points per game better. Thanks to Wilcox's efforts, the defense he leaves behind is one of the stingiest in the Pac-12.
At USC, Wilcox inherits one of the premier defenses in the Pac-12, if not the nation. Behind preseason All-American defensive lineman Leonard Williams, the Trojans start with a talented and aggressive front seven.
Wilcox is implementing a 3-4 base scheme, a slight adjustment from his predecessor, Clancy Pendergast, and the 52 formation.
Expect aggressive pursuit of the quarterback from Wilcox's defense.
Last season under his direction, Washington recorded 41 sacks. USC could see similar production with Williams and Antwaun Woods commanding attention at the line and linebackers J.R. Tavai and Scott Felix blitzing off the edge.
OLB Scott Felix was flying all over the field chasing down ball carriers. He even knocked down QB Cody Kessler accidentally.— Michael Lev (@MichaelJLev) August 19, 2014
The Trojans secondary is coming together, as well. Sarkisian lavished praised on the group last month at Pac-12 media days, in particular redshirt freshman Chris Hawkins.
Hawkins is living up to the billing with an impressive camp.
Meanwhile, one hallmark of Wilcox's scheme in his time at Washington was experimenting with players at different positions. He moved safety Shaq Thompson to linebacker, and Thompson flourished.
Wilcox is testing a similar move with sophomore Su'a Cravens. Cravens is too valuable at safety to play linebacker full time, but he could see time at both positions this season.
|Player Name||Injury||Expected Return Date|
|LB Jabari Ruffin||ACL||Out for Season|
|RB Tre Madden||Turf Toe||No Timetable|
|OL Khaliel Rodgers||Knee||Week 2|
|NT Kenny Bigelow||ACL||Out for Season|
|OL Jordan Austin||Hip||Out for Season|
|DT Antwaun Woods||Elbow||Week 1|
|DE Leonard Williams||Shoulder||Week 1|
USCTrojans.com, Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register
USC went into fall camp without defensive lineman Kenny Bigelow, who tore his ACL in July. The Trojans also lost linebacker Jabari Ruffin for the year to a knee injury.
Ruffin was competing for a spot in the starting rotation.
With just 67 scholarship players at the start of camp, any loss is a tremendous negative. However, USC is built to weather injuries in its defensive front seven more than at other spots on the roster. Of course, that's contingent on keeping the rest of the position healthy.
Williams and Woods have both missed time in fall camp, though both are expected back for Week 1.
Smith will provide depth and a playmaking presence in the Trojans wide receiving corps.
Smith's transition into the lineup is likely not a surprise. However, fellow newcomer Ajene Harris has turned heads with his showing in preparation for the start of the season.
Just a 2-star prospect out of Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, Harris' fall camp is a revelation.
He told Lindsey Thiry of the Los Angeles Times that Agholor has been key in his progression.
"He helped with all my routes and just catching and the playbook. Learning from him is big," Harris said.
The biggest potential impact from the Trojans' 2014 signing class might come from offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn. The 4-star prospect worked his way into a prominent role during spring practices, and his fall camp could solidify him as an invaluable part of the offensive line.
USC will need every bit of offensive line support it can muster. Depth along the front five vexed USC at times last season, and it was evident in the Trojans' 34 surrendered sacks.
|Aug. 30||Fresno State||Los Angeles|
|Sept. 6||Stanford||Stanford, California|
|Sept. 13||Boston College||Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts|
|Sept. 27||Oregon State||Los Angeles|
|Oct. 4||Arizona State||Los Angeles|
|Oct. 11||Arizona||Tucson, Arizona|
|Oct. 18||Colorado||Los Angeles|
|Oct. 25||Utah||Salt Lake City, Utah|
|Nov. 1||Washington State||Pullman, Washington|
|Nov. 13||Cal||Los Angeles|
|Nov. 22||UCLA||Pasadena, California|
|Nov. 29||Notre Dame||Los Angeles|
The tone for Sarkisian's first season is set early when, in Week 2, the Trojans travel to Stanford to face the two-time defending Pac-12 champion.
Last season's 20-17 upset of Stanford was perhaps the definitive game in USC's 7-2 finish. The win also snapped a four-game losing skid to the Cardinal.
Consecutive weekends in early October also promise to test the Trojans' Pac-12 title credentials. On Oct. 4, Arizona State visits the Coliseum.
The Sun Devils have not won there since 1999. However, the reigning Pac-12 South champions scored 62 points, tied for the most ever allowed by a USC defense, when the Trojans visited Tempe, Arizona, last September.
The following Saturday, USC heads to Tucson to face Arizona. Both the Sun Devils and Wildcats run uptempo offenses with a zone-read emphasis. Such systems have given the Trojans defense problems in recent years.
Should USC emerge from the first eight games in its challenging conference slate relatively unscathed, the annual rivalry showdown with UCLA could be for a place in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
The Bruins have taken the last two in the series, and they enter this season favorites to win the Pac-12 South. The rivalry could take on added significance in 2014.
USC's look is among the iconic in college football, and little about that will change in 2014. Images of a slightly shinier, chrome helmet with a red facemask surfaced in July.
Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News reported the new helmets might not debut until Sept. 27.
Nevertheless, the program has had some fun teasing the idea in the offseason. Sarkisian joked about glow-in-the-dark uniforms at Pac-12 media days.
USC had some more fun with uniforms at Pac-12 media days. Photos of an all-white helmet with a silver logo emblazoned on the side surfaced on social media, causing a minor uproar.
USC trolled their fan base by pretending to unveil a “new" white helmet for the 2014 season http://t.co/KCmczkAACV— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) July 23, 2014
Of course, the Trojans are not wearing this helmet in 2014, or any other season. The Pac-12 lined the walkway into the theater at Paramount Studios with an all-white helmet for each of the conference's members.
Prediction: 9-3 overall, 6-3 Pac-12
Sarkisian's first season is a challenging one. The impact of the NCAA sanctions still lingers over the program, as the Trojans enter the season with fewer than 70 scholarship players among their ranks.
USC plays a typically demanding nonconference schedule, and this season's Pac-12 may be the deepest in history. The Trojans boast one of the conference's best starting lineups on both sides of the ball. Williams is a contender for the Bronko Nagurski Award, given to the nation's premier defensive player.
Should the Trojans get the right breaks and compete for the conference championship, Agholor and Allen are potential Heisman Trophy candidates.
But USC will spend much of the season just one injury away from drastically altering its finish. Because of the team's depth issues, a key injury means the difference between competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff and falling short.
The Trojans are probably a year away from returning to the peak of the Pac-12.