When Steve Sarkisian was hired as USC coach last month, he had a three-week window to evaluate his future Trojans players as they prepared to play in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Not only was Sarkisian watching the players, he was also watching the USC coaches. Sarkisian had an idea of which assistant coaches he wanted to bring with him from Washington and also knew he had a few open spots to fill, primarily on offense. Tee Martin was tabbed early on as one coach who would stay. The former national champion quarterback had developed a strong bond with USC’s receivers and is considered a very good recruiter.
It was considered a mild surprise, however, when Sarkisian announced that Clay Helton -- the USC offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach who had served as interim coach for the bowl game -- would be staying on in the same role. There were no previous ties between Sarkisian and Helton, except a shared interest in the offensive philosophy that Sarkisian wanted to bring to USC.
“I’ve coached up-tempo football for 10 years and then pro-style for the last four years at USC,” Helton said. “I’ve always wondered what would happen if they were mixed.”
That, in a nutshell, is the same message Sarkisian is trying to preach about the Trojans’ new offense. It’s not a completely different variation from the pro-style attack USC has been known for through the years, and it will still feature a strong tailback emphasis, something that should ring loudly through Tailback U.
“The principles of the offense haven’t changed,” Sarkisian said. “It’s still run-first football, run the football and do it in a physical style. The up-tempo nuance is the biggest thing we’ve added. That is one thing you will definitely notice, we will go a lot faster.”
Sarkisian added the up-tempo element to his offense at Washington in 2013 and the results were impressive. The Huskies ranked in the top 20 nationally in total offense, rushing offense, pass efficiency offense and scoring offense. Washingon tailback Bishop Sankey was the No. 4 rusher in the nation with 1,870 yards. The last USC tailback to get above that mark was Marcus Allen in 1981.
A big key for the development of the USC offense will be adapting to the personnel available on the roster. When Sarkisian arrived at Washington five years ago, the Huskies were coming off an 0-12 season using a spread offense.
“We had no fullbacks and no tight ends so we had to adapt,” Sarkisian said. “By last year we had built things up and we ran a lot of two-tight-end sets, including one tight end who won the Mackey Award (Austin Seferian-Jenkins).”
One thing that remains to be seen is how the Trojans will utilize the running back position under Sarkisian. At Washington, the Huskies traditionally used a featured back -- first it was Chris Polk and then it was Sankey. The Trojans have a bevy of talented backs returning, including a trio who all had 100-yard rushing games last year in Javorius “Buck” Allen, Tre Madden and Justin Davis, not to mention Ty Isaac and the potential return of D.J. Morgan from injury.
As Sarkisian noted, a lot will be based upon how the players perform on the practice field. But one thing that should be familiar to the players is the system being put in place.
“I don’t think the system has changed from what they have done here,” USC running backs coach Johnny Nansen said. “It’s the verbiage that we’ve changed. Obviously, you have to get to know the players and spend some time with them. They have to understand your philosophy. We’re all different coaches in what we believe in. The kids have to buy into your philosophy, and that’s really where you start off at.”
USC tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo was on Sarkisian’s staff last year at Washington and is one of four former college quarterbacks on the Trojans offensive staff this year: Sarkisian (BYU), Martin (Tennessee), Tuiasosopo (Washington) and Helton (Houston). That kind of football savvy available to the staff should only benefit the overall offensive plan.
“We all look at film and make our own judgments and input,” Tuiasosopo said. “We work well together and I believe in the schemes that we run. On game day, Sarkisian always seeks our input.”
Which gets back to Helton, in his role as offensive coordinator. Helton said there still has been no determination made if he will be in the press box serving as the “eye in the sky” for Sarkisian as play caller. It might be more important for Helton, in his role as quarterbacks coach, to always be a consistent voice in the ear of the quarterback when he comes to the sideline. Whoever that QB is, he will have to win the job this spring.
Cody Kessler returns as the incumbent starter at quarterback after completing 65 percent of his passes this past season for just less than 3,000 yards and being named MVP of the Las Vegas Bowl. In addition, Max Wittek has two career starts under his belt, Max Browne is coming off a redshirt year and was one of the top-ranked prep quarterbacks in the country in 2013 and, finally, Jalen Greene arrived this month as an early enrollee who will be able to take part in spring ball.
“We’ve got some very competitive kids at the quarterback spot, we’re very fortunate there,” Helton said. “It will come down to who does the best job with decision-making, timing and accuracy. I can’t wait to get started.”
And USC fans can’t wait to see the results. Spring ball starts on March 11, and that’s when things will really get going.