USC Trojans first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian met the national media Wednesday in the Paramount Theatre Lobby of Hollywood’s Paramount Studios, and on Day 1 of Pac-12 media days, he gave an upbeat and optimistic assessment of his 2014 team.
“I really like this football team,” said Sarkisian, whose Trojans were the media’s preseason pick for second in the Pac-12’s South Division behind favorite UCLA.
Some of Sarkisian’s excitement stems from the fact that his predecessor and good friend, current Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, didn’t exactly leave the cupboard empty when he was unceremoniously fired by USC athletic director Pat Haden after last season’s Arizona State debacle.
“It's a credit to the previous staff and the job they did in recruiting really fine young men that have been closer together to me than probably any team I've been around,” Sarkisian said. “These guys are a very tight-knit group. There is tremendous leadership on this team, and there is a lot of talent.”
And the bottom line?
“I think we have a chance to do something special this year,” Sarkisian said.
For Sarkisian, his Southern California roots are strong, having grown up locally in Torrance. Once a freshman baseball player at USC before eventually becoming a quarterback at BYU, Sarkisian later became a seven-year assistant under former Trojans head coach Pete Carroll before being named the head coach at Washington.
“To now be back as a head coach, it's humbling,” Sarkisian said. “When you start thinking about John McKay and John Robinson and Pete Carroll, and to think that you're in that position now, it's a position, like I said, I'm humbled by it, but also one that I'm proud of the fact that I am that kid from Torrance.”
The Trojans return eight starters on both offense and defense, which also includes returning junior starting quarterback Cody Kessler, a preseason O’Brien Award candidate, and junior All-America defensive tackle Leonard Williams. As a bonus, the Trojans also return both kickers.
“I think Cody is a great player,” said Sarkisian, who recruited Kessler hard when Sark was still at Washington. “When you look at the second half of last season, he played extremely well. He’s ultra-competitive and has great leadership.”
With Sarkisian’s own innovative no-huddle, shotgun offense, are the glory days of Tailback U. history?
“Our guy (Bishop Sankey) last year at Washington rushed for over 1,900 yards, so I believe in running the football,” Sarkisian said. “We're going to run the football. We're a run-first football team. My five years as a head coach I've had a 1,000-yard rusher every year, so I don't suspect that will change this fall.”
The strength of the Trojans in 2014, however, might be their defense, which could develop into one of the best units in the country.
“I love our front seven,” Sarkisian said. “Our front seven is the strength of our football team. This is a great group. Couple that with a secondary that’s gained a lot of experience over the last year or two.
“I think our defense has a chance to be very good, and we need to continue to develop. We have to be the best tackling team in our conference.”
With all of Sarkisian’s unabashed optimism, his team is still looking up to UCLA, a team that has beaten the Trojans the past two outings and is led again by all-star quarterback Brett Hundley.
Sarkisian knows the Pac-12 South Division will be no easy pickings.
“Obviously with Brett (Hundley) coming back, UCLA is going to be a tough team to beat,” Sarkisian said.
“Taylor Kelly at Arizona State is a tough team to beat. The receivers at Arizona will be a tough team to beat. Utah getting quarterback Travis Wilson back and playing up there will be a tough team to beat. Then here comes Colorado with their true freshmen. It will be very challenging.”
Despite Sarkisian’s positive outlook for the coming season, he still has his concerns.
“Everybody wants to know what's our record going to be?” Sarkisian said. "What is the score going to be? And we lose sight of the journey. We lose sight of the experiences that are along the way.
“So I guess my concern is that these guys embrace the journey, embrace the experiences, enjoy the experiences that are going to last them a lifetime. The record and the scores, that is the byproduct of all of that. That is the end result, so I wanted to make sure they enjoy the journey quite honestly.”
For Sarkisian, his own cardinal and gold journey is also about to begin.