There were some skeptical raised eyebrows when USC hired Steve Sarkisian away from Washington, but a strong performance on national signing day and the resulting highly rated recruiting class has engendered hope and enthusiasm now among the Trojans faithful.
Sarkisian signed the No. 1 class in the Pac-12, despite scholarship limitations due to NCAA sanctions, and next year those limitations will be gone. Now, however, the focus turns to the football part of football, with spring practices set to begin March 11. Sarkisian has a team coming back that figures to be nationally ranked and in the thick of the Pac-12 South Division race, even with only 70 scholarship players.
With his recruiting class signed and sealed, it seemed like a good time to check in with Sarkisian and see what's on his immediate horizon.
Have you settled in in Los Angeles yet, house and family all together?
Steve Sarkisian: The family is here. We are all together. We have not gotten a house yet. I don't think you ever settle down in Year 1. I think Year 1 on a job, there is always a lot of moving parts. I say jokingly, when you take a new job it's like somebody opened up a puzzle box and dumped all the pieces on the ground and you start putting the pieces of the puzzle together. I don't think you do that in a couple of months. That takes about a year to put all the pieces to the puzzle together. But it has been a really efficient couple of months so far on the job.
You going to miss taking a boat to the office, as you could at Washington?
Sarkisian: Quite honestly, I will. I will miss that. That was a unique treat there in Seattle. But I get to go to the Pacific Ocean now, so that's pretty cool.
What was the general message during recruiting? How did you sell USC under you and your coaching staff?
Sarkisian: First of all, USC is a tremendous product. We have a product where we get to go into any household, whether that be in Southern California or anywhere around the country, that has had amazing football accolades for decades. It's a tremendous university. Our president was just mentioning there were 51,000 applicants this past year for 2,700 spots for the freshman class. It's an unbelievable place that way. But also there is the opportunity to come and play early. We'll open up fall camp this year with 70 scholarship players, and that's if everybody is healthy. So there's an opportunity for these guys to come in and compete and compete early and to be on the forefront of something we think is going to be really special. For this university to withstand what they were able to withstand with those sanctions, winning 10 games two out of the past three years, I think is tremendous. And now, here we go, we get to take off. We signed 19 players in this year's class. We get to sign 25 next year. That's 44 new players in a 12-month span. I think we're about to take off again. That's what this school has done historically over decades. They've had tremendous runs and I think we are poised for another great one.
What's on the top of your to-do list now?
Sarkisian: Right now we're implementing our schemes on offense, defense and special teams. We're trying to get all the coaches settled in, one, with their families with housing all all that -- they've been hitting it pretty good on the road. But the biggest thing is getting our schemes implemented as a staff. We've got new staff members on both sides of the ball. Then there's really getting to know our players who are in the midst of an offseason conditioning program right now. Getting to know them, their body types, their movements, how they fit in our schemes. And then we're preparing for spring practice, which is coming pretty quickly here in a month on March 11.
Let's talk quarterbacks. Cody Kessler is a returning starter who played well over the second half of the season, but Max Browne is a talented guy. How does that position stand right now, wide open or is the job Kessler's to lose?
Sarkisian: We're going to let these guys compete like crazy. Just like we are with every other position on our roster. The thing I promised the team on my first day on the job is there would be a clean slate for everybody. Guys are going to get an opportunity to compete. I think it's a great opportunity for Max to feel like there's a crack in the door and let's see how far he can take it. I think it's a unique opportunity for Cody to continue to improve because Max is going to give him all he's got. If that's the case, that's when you play really good football. That's when you get pushed to the highest levels. I know those two guys are going to compete like crazy, along with Jalen Greene, a kid we got mid-year who I have high aspirations for. I think for everybody on our roster, with a clean slate on which to compete, is going to be special for everybody.
One of the challenges Lane Kiffin faced was managing his practices -- how much contact, etc. -- with limited scholarship players. You'll be right around 70 guys next fall: What's your feeling on hitting at practice?
Sarkisian: Quite honestly, we're still going through that, trying to figure it out. We don't have to make that decision today. We do have a plan in place to visit with some people who have left college football and moved on to the NFL and how they've managed the NFL roster at practice, guys who have been in the NFL for some time, and how they manage their rosters. We're going to make sure our practices are extremely efficient. We going to have to be physical, but we're going to be efficient when we are physical. I think at the end of the day for us, come the fall, we want a healthy team that is capable of playing physical, fast, smart football. That's not going out to beat each other up on the field every single day. It's be smart when you are doing it, to understand to give guys enough breaks in between. It's about having enough information, seeing how the people at the highest level are doing it that have come from what they knew at the college level. It can serve as a good model for us.
I know you haven't even gone through spring practices, but where do you feel good about this roster and where are some areas of concern?
Sarkisian: I think we are a really talented and deep defense. I think the guys we have returning, as well as a couple of guys who redshirted a year ago, to go along with some of the kids we just signed, I'm really excited about the athleticism and physicality of our defense, especially the front seven. Offensively, the running back position is probably as good as there is in the country when you look at the first four guys, when you look at Buck Allen, Tre Madden, Justin Davis and Ty Isaac. I think Nelson Agholor is a phenomenal wide receiver. I think we are going to have to figure out the right combination of offensive linemen. We're going to need some young guys to play there. The depth is not great there on the offensive line. I would say the strength of this team, today, going into spring practice, is our defense, and offensively for us figuring out the guys coming off of injury, whether it's [receivers] George Farmer, Steven Mitchell, how we're going to implement those guys, and then play to the strengths of those guys we have on offense.
You and Lane Kiffin have been friends a long time. It's kind of a strange situation in which you would follow your friend into a job, to replace your friend who has been fired. How has your relationship endured with you taking over a team he once coached?
Sarkisian: I think it's been fine. Lane is a really good football coach. I think he's going to do a really good job at Alabama. Sometimes when you get into situations, it's not about how much football you know. Sometimes it just doesn't work right; it just doesn't play out right. I have a great deal of respect for Lane. He's a good football coach. He's going to do great things. I hope what we bring to this program is something that is going to be really effective that gets us right back to the top, competing for championships year in and year out.
Finally, you ran an effective uptempo offense at Washington last year. Do you have any feelings about the NCAA's proposed rule changes, not allowing an offense to snap the ball before the play clock reaches 29 seconds?
Sarkisian: I was a little caught off-guard by it, quite honestly. I think the reality is that if we are talking about safety, if a player is injured, then he should be injured and get medical attention. If he is fatigued, he's fatigued. That's not injured. In basketball, when a player is fatigued, they don't let him just walk off the court and somebody else comes in. You have to wait for a dead ball or else call a timeout. I'm a little surprised by it. It kind of came out of left field. We'll see what happens. We'll see how it plays out. Not a lot of teams snap the ball within 10 seconds, anyway, so I wonder how often a team will snap the ball at 29 seconds and the defense will have 13 men on the field.