During his first run at USC, Ed Orgeron built his reputation as a great defensive line coach and a recruiting force.
He also was the coaching staff's designated fiery guy. Fair to say he was a master at whipping a locker room into a frenzy.
Now he's back, working under Lane Kiffin instead of Pete Carroll, and he's trying to rebuild the Trojans into the force they were from 2002-2008, not the indifferent team from last fall.
And, of course, he and Kiffin are trying to do that while yoked with severe NCAA sanctions.
The Trojans are 3-0, but most of the country is unimpressed. AP voters seem to be applying a special standard to USC, punishing the Trojans in the polls despite their playing three FBS teams -- two from AQ conferences -- as well as two road games.
Orgeron and USC are headed to Washington State on Saturday, where they likely will win but still drop a couple of spots in the polls. We caught up with him before he bolted for Pullman.
How long did it take for you to feel like you were back home at USC?
Ed Orgeron: (Laughs) Not long at all. This is a place I always wanted to come back to. And I was fortunate enough to come back here and fit right in and just start working again. So it didn't take long at all.
Before we get into football, what happened to your foot? How did you get hurt?
EO: I was at practice two Thursdays ago, setting up a drill, and I heard a crack. I got an x-ray on it and it was something that probably happened while I was jogging this summer, a little fracture. Just got a little worse.
I ask because I was wondering if you've mellowed. Or are you still as fiery as ever?
EO: (Laughs) I'm not mellow. In fact, there may be a little bit more fire that has come out.
Tell me about the defense: What's your overall feeling after three games?
EO: We started off really shaky. Hawaii was on fire. We made a lot of mistakes and didn't tackle well and got tired in the first game. We made some improvement playing against Virginia. We still have a ways to go. I'm really proud of the way we tackled and fit the run against Minnesota, which was averaging 252 yards per game. We still haven't played up to our potential yet. We're still getting better. We still have some deficits that we will have to get better, recruit better, coach better. But I think the tackling has improved, the conditioning is getting better and they're playing harder.
Who is playing well?
EO: We came in and we were really concerned with our linebackers. But I think they've been very solid. The whole crew: Michael Morgan, Devon Kennard, Malcolm Smith and Chris Galippo -- those guys a group of done a good job. DT Jurrell Casey is playing like an All-American. He's one of the better players I've had since I've been at USC. He's been really consistent.
What isn't going well?
EO: Everything starts up front. You got to have a consistent pass rush. We haven't had a ferocious pass rush since we've been back here. Not tackling, giving up the big plays. We've had busted assignments, letting guys get over the top. Guys have been in position to make plays and haven't. Everything that hasn't gone well has been correctable, though.
When you were at USC before, Washington State was pretty good. Are you a little surprised by their struggles?
EO: You just never can tell in college football. With recruiting, everything. Everything has equaled out. Look at Boise State. A team can lose a couple of good players and fall off, but they can regain their strength with a couple good players in recruiting. They have been off for a while, but I think those guys will fight back eventually.
What do you see from the Cougars offense on tape that you guys need to worry about?
EO: They are explosive. They aren't scoring a lot of points, but they've reeled off some big plays, some big runs. They've had more explosive plays that you'd expect from a team not having much success. We need to go up there and be ready to play. You know they're always going to play the Trojans well.
How far are you guys away from getting back to old USC defense?
EO: Oh, we're a ways away. That's going to be a process. It took us a couple years with coach Carroll to start playing USC defense, a couple of great recruits coming in. We're a ways away. Whether we can attain it this season remains to be seen.
You're known as one of the nation's top recruiters. What do you say about NCAA sanctions when you are out recruiting?
EO: It's galvanized our football team. We had choice to complain about it, give excuses, but we didn't. We're recruiting harder than ever. We're coaching harder than ever. There's a chance for these guys to come in and play. It really affected this year's class the most with two bowls. Next year's class is only one bowl. I really feel with 15 recruits we can play with anybody in the nation. USC is going to get the top players. I don't think it's going to be that detrimental to USC. We're not going to let that happen.
Knowing your numbers are going to be down over the next few years, how have you guys changed strategies to account for that?
EO: Lineman. Linemen. You have to get lineman. You have to have backups on the line to be able to practice the way we want to practice, physically, with physical practices. We have to make sure that the lines are really, really great.