This spring ball session is the second spring under Steve Sarkisian for the Trojans, and the difference has been notable this time around compared to where things were last year.
There is usually a transition period from one coaching staff to another, and last year was a pronounced difference after Sarkisian took over for the popular Ed Orgeron, and several players weren’t so quick to accept the new coach and his way of doing things.
“We were really unfamiliar with Sark when he first got here, so there was a lot of butting heads,” linebacker Su'a Cravens said. “It wasn’t like an arguing type of situation, but there was a lot of getting used to each other. Now we understand what the other wants, and that means the tempo goes up and we play a lot faster.”
The tempo is a big key for Sarkisian. His desire to run an up-tempo offense, and to get his defense prepared for a quicker pace of play, has been well-documented, but the Trojans weren’t able to completely execute the system in his first season for reasons that include a reduced roster and lack of knowledge between players and coaches. From the very first week of spring this year, however, the USC coach has noticed an improvement in the tempo and speed of the Trojans practice sessions.
“I feel better this year than I did last year at this time,” Sarkisian said. “I think a lot of that is just being confident -- knowing the call, understanding the call and then being able to play fast. That has definitely showed up.”
On the offensive side of the ball, one of the critical areas of development will be the line, a unit that started three true freshmen at times last season and will be breaking in a new position coach this year.
“The offense definitely understands the playbook a lot better,” center Max Tuerk said. “It’s always good to get that experience of playing in a game because you play faster after you understand the plays better. And (offensive line) coach (Bob) Connelly has come in and helped us go a lot faster.”
This spring has also been an opportunity for Tuerk to continue to master the fundamentals of the center position, where he was named first-team All-Pac-12 last season after spending his first two seasons at tackle and guard for the Trojans.
“I feel awesome here now,” Tuerk said. “There’s always room to improve, but I’m a lot more confident after getting so many reps under my belt.”
Cravens is also using this spring to get more familiar with a new position after being moved from safety to linebacker at the beginning of the season and without having the benefit of extended practice time before being put into game action at his new spot.
“It’s probably 100 percent easier now,” Cravens said with a smile. “I had never played in the box before, had never dealt with that, so it was something different that I had to adjust to. Now, I don’t worry about anything. I just go out there, read the play and do what I’m supposed to do. It’s no longer a physical game for me -- it’s all mental, and I like making plays, so being closer to the line of scrimmage allows me to do that.”
One of the big factors Cravens and other players have mentioned as playing a role in the smoother transition this spring was the offseason conditioning work led by strength and conditioning coach Ivan Lewis and staff, a program that combined weight-room sessions, conditioning and an increased focus on nutrition as well.
“Ivan got us ready, no doubt. There weren’t any games being played this winter,” Cravens said. “You see it on the field because when you’re stronger you can focus more on your assignment and technique. We’re seeing guys do things they couldn’t do before, which is going to make us a smarter team, a better team, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”