LOS ANGELES -- When Cody Kessler went through the recruiting process, the Bakersfield (Calif.) Centennial product found himself being wooed by big-name college coaches from Lane Kiffin to Nick Saban to Dave Wannstedt. But none was more fervent in his pursuit than Washington’s Steve Sarkisian.
“Me and Sark were very close,” Kessler said. “I can honestly say that he probably did the best job of recruiting me. He was real and he was straight-up.”
Having fallen in love with the tradition at USC, however, on top of a desire to play close to home, Kessler ultimately opted to become a Trojan.
It’s a decision that Kessler – who has passed for over 2,600 yards this season as USC’s starting signal caller – doesn’t regret one bit.
But now, with the arrival of Sarkisian as the Trojans’ new head coach, the two are together. That fact wasn’t lost on either of them as they came face-to-face after an introductory team meeting held Monday night.
“It was kind of funny,” Kessler said following Sarkisian’s press conference on Tuesday. “The first time that I saw him yesterday after the meeting he just kind of laughed and said, ‘Here we are now.’”
Before compiling a record of 34-29 at Washington, Sarkisian was known as a quarterback guru who blossomed as a Trojans assistant, playing a major part in the development of Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty and Mark Sanchez.
“Coach Sark is a quarterback guy,” Kessler said. “When you have a guy that has that experience, and knows what he’s doing, and has a resume that’s second to none when it comes to getting guys to the NFL, you’re very excited about it.”
Still, like most of his teammates, Kessler’s excitement has been tempered by a heavy heart that has come with the departure of Ed Orgeron. Taking over as USC’s interim coach following the dismissal of Lane Kiffin, the boisterous Louisiana native guided the Trojans to victory in six of the team’s final eight games. More than that, he fostered an atmosphere marked by enthusiasm and energy that helped unify the team.
Not surprisingly, when Kessler and his teammates were informed by Orgeron on Monday that he had resigned to pursue other head coaching opportunities following Sarkisian’s hire, they were overcome with emotion, with many players being brought to tears.
“It was crazy,” Kessler said. “Guys were freaking out and it was just unreal. And that’s something you expect when that happens. When you lose someone that you care about so much.”
But in his first crucial move as head coach of the Trojans, Sarkisian would some calm during his first team meeting.
“For Coach Sark to walk in and face this thing head on and attack it right away like he did, and settle everyone down, was awesome,” Kessler said. “The way he addressed the team, he was just real. He told us, ‘this is home for me. It may seem like I abandoned my team when I left Washington, but this is home. This is where I’ve always wanted to be. This is where I started out, and we’re going to do great things.’”
Kessler now looks forward to learning the ins and outs of Sarkisian’s offense. Hoping to install a similar run-first, up-tempo, spread attack to the one that has helped Washington rack up an average of 514.3 yards per game -- the No. 8 mark in the FBS -- this season, Sarkisian has already made a point of bracing the team for a major change that lies ahead.
“One thing he told us is that we’re going to have to condition a lot more, and we’re going to start running a lot more in practice,” Kessler said. “But when you can go all four quarters and not slow down, teams are going to be slower, they’re going to be breathing hard, they’re going to need to substitute and they won’t be able to.”
Looking past that obvious difference, Kessler says that Sarkisian’s offense actually shares some traits with the Trojans’ current system -- something that could speed up the transition.
“I watched a little when we watched other teams’ defenses against Washington, they had a lot of the same concepts, but I was talking to him yesterday after the meeting and he told me that there’s a lot of different verbiage,” Kessler said. “It’s kind of shortened down because there’s no huddle [and] you don’t have time to call long plays, but he says it’s the same concepts. Maybe different formations and stuff like that, but it’s the same schemes that he’s taken from Coach [Pete] Carroll and from this offense, and he’s kind of put his own stuff into it.”
Kessler has little time to dive into his future with Sarkisian as the QB will have to prepare for the Trojans’ yet-to-be-determined bowl game and help the Trojans remain focused after a roller coaster week.
And beyond that, with Sarkisian at the helm, he believes that brighter days most certainly lie ahead.
“Coach Sark is our coach now and I’m so grateful for that,” Kessler said. “I really feel like this team is going in the right direction.”