It was a whirlwind turn of events for Trojans starting quarterback Cody Kessler and his teammates over the weekend.
The dismantling at the hands of Arizona State, followed by the early morning dismissal of Lane Kiffin and the subsequent move to name Ed Orgeron as the interim head coach were all a lot to take in, in a short period of time, for the Trojans.
“It’s never easy losing a coach, especially the guy who recruited me and who’s been here the whole time that I’ve been here,” said Kessler of Kiffin, whom he revealed he spoke with on Sunday night via telephone.
“I just told [Kiffin], ‘Thank you for giving me the opportunity. It meant a lot to me,’ ” Kessler said after Wednesday's practice. “And then he said, ‘You became a big-time quarterback last night in that game. I’m so proud of you.’”
And while Kessler obviously has a great deal of respect for his former coach, the third-year sophomore is optimistic when it comes to the future of the team under Orgeron.
“We’re moving forward,” said Kessler, who on the season has completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 832 yards and six touchdowns with four interceptions. “Coach O is our guy now, and I have 100 percent trust in him, and I’m excited for him to be the head coach.”
For a USC squad that has staggered to 3-2 start this season, and whose performances have been marked by inconsistent play and lack of cohesion, the enthusiasm and intensity that Orgeron brought to both sides of the ball on Wednesday during the team’s workout was well received by Kessler and the rest of the Trojans players.
“That’s the first thing that you think of with Coach O -- competitiveness,” Kessler said. “You love that in a coach, and he brings that every day. He’s not even an offensive coach, and he was stopping us, making sure that we got the plays right, just because he wants to win in every aspect. And him yelling at us, him getting fired up at us, it just gets you fired up, and that’s what you want.”
But the ascension of Orgeron isn’t the only coaching shakeup for the Trojans’ offense. Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Clay Helton is the team’s new play caller -- a job previously handled by Kiffin. And while that might seem like a difficult role for a coach to take on -- and for a quarterback to adjust to midseason -- Kessler is confident in the transition.
“I trust him more than anyone,” said Kessler of Helton, who called plays at times last March and April during spring drills. “He’s the one that, honestly, taught me the offense, and handed it down to me, and every day has taught me stuff about it. I feel really comfortable with him, and I feel like we can be on the same page really fast.”
With the Trojans currently ranked No. 98 nationally in passing offense (189.8 average yards per game), the big question is whether or not Helton will change anything about the general play-calling philosophy showcased under Kiffin. That won’t likely be answered until the Trojans hit the Coliseum field on Oct. 10 against Arizona, but Orgeron did say on Tuesday during the weekly Pac-12 coaches’ teleconference that he’d like to spread the ball around to more players.
With that said, Kessler believes that the offense has made significant strides this season and that growth will go a long way to the success of the new guys in charge.
“I’m staying calm,” Kessler said. “I feel really comfortable where our offense is today, because if you look at it, obviously, the game didn’t go how we wanted it to against Arizona State, but we put up over 500 yards against [Boston College], Utah State … we moved the ball really well, and then this last game we put up 41 points and almost 600 yards. I’m excited where the offense is at, and I’m just focused on that.”