Trojans buying into up-tempo offense

Steve Sarkisian and the Trojans feel the need for speed.

If you're looking for signs of where the new USC coach is going to make his biggest imprint this fall, it would be a good idea to look at the up-tempo offense that the Trojans will utilize.

Huddling? That's a thing of the past, the Trojans will be too busy hustling to the line of scrimmage for the next play. And don't expect to see the quarterback under center much either, Cody Kessler will line up primarily in the shotgun with a single back. That means USC, the home of the modern I formation, will not use a full-time fullback and will run a lot of three-receiver sets.

It's designed for an offense to run more plays, to prevent mass substitutions on defense and to wear down an opponent. It's a system that Sarkisian has seen work, as he installed it in 2013 at Washington and the Huskies ended the season ranked in the top 20 nationally in total offense, rushing offense, passing efficiency offense and scoring offense.

"The schemes are going to look similar to what we ran before when I was at USC, but we're going to go fast," Sarkisian said at Pac-12 media day on Wednesday. "It will be something that will be very different than has ever been seen at the Coliseum. We want to go fast but we also want to execute at a high level of success. It will be critical for our players to understand the principles of operation of the no-huddle, while at the same time knowing the offensive schemes."

Because of the need to continue installing a new scheme, the player-run voluntary summer throwing sessions became a vital teaching tool to help get the team ready for fall camp. Sarkisian thought it to be important enough that he devoted an entire spring practice to letting the players know how to run a practice, what drills to conduct, etc. The result was a summer period where a lot was able to get accomplished. The players bought into the system and had good attendance and focus during the sessions.

"We started to learn the offense in spring and then got a lot more comfortable with it over the summer," Kessler said. "It's a matter of getting used to the faster pace, that's the biggest thing. You need to communicate much faster and it's all about each guy being accountable to know his stuff.

"Me and Hayes (Pullard) would script the plays and we would get close to 100 in per hour, not bad for not having any coaches out there. It was great for me as a quarterback to see how the guys were ready to work, not just the older guys but the younger guys too. We're not as stacked with depth so we're going to need some of the young guys to come in and get used to the tempo right away."

Sarkisian will adjust his fall camp practice schedule to account for the fact that the Trojans will have fewer than 70 scholarship players, a result of the last remaining penalty of the NCAA sanctions related to the Reggie Bush case. To run the up-tempo system you need to have a steady stream of bodies to simply get through a practice, not just on offense but on defense as well, and Sarkisian understands the reality of the current roster situation.

"We won't ever change the intensity of practice, but we're going to modify the schedule," Sarkisian said. "Our players will tell you that we're still going to practice hard and it will be physically and mentally challenging, but how much we practice is the key.

"We're going to focus on making sure the starters are getting the exact same number of reps, but if we only have a first and second unit, we're not going to run the same number of plays in a practice that we would if we had a first, second and third unit. So if that is the case and our practices end in an hour and 45 minutes instead of two hours and 15 minutes, so be it. It's one of the things we can do to preserve our players, to monitor their reps and monitor their recovery time."

Sarkisian was quick to dispel any thoughts that the phrase "up-tempo" means that the Trojans will suddenly become a team that is throwing the ball around the field in a spread offense. In fact, old school fans of Tailback U will be happy to know that Sarkisian intends to maintain the ground game as an important part of the offense.

"We're a run-first football team," Sarkisian said. "Our guy last year at Washington (Bishop Sankey) ran for 1,870 yards and I've had a 1,000-yard rusher in each of my five seasons as a head coach. I believe in running the football and I don't suspect that will change this fall."

Sarkisian praised Kessler as a good fit to run the offense, and the two will finally get a chance to work together after Sarkisian recruited Cody while he was with Huskies.

"Cody is ultra-competitive," Sarkisian said. "He's got extremely quick hands, which in our offense is critical for the quarterback's success. He throws a very accurate ball and he has great leadership with a year experience under his belt, that is always very helpful.

"When I first saw him after I got hired I said ‘I finally got you'. I thought I was going to get him at Washington quite honestly. I'm looking forward to working with him."