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USC football ready to push the tempo

Posted: July 23, 2014 10:07 p.m.
Updated: July 23, 2014 10:07 p.m.

Universityt of Southern California quarterback Cody Kessler, left, and defensive end Leonard Williams pose for photos at the Pac-12 NCAA college football media days at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles.

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HOLLYWOOD — After a season of twists and turns and off-the-field adversity, the USC Trojans are ready to move forward under first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian and returning starting quarterback junior Cody Kessler.

Speaking at Pac-12 Media Day on Wednesday at Paramount Studios, the Trojans, represented by Sarkisian, Kessler and defensive lineman Leonard Williams, spoke at length of their up-tempo offense and new-found stability.

“The up-tempo offense is a big change,” Sarkisian said. “We’re going to go fast, and that is something that will be very different than has ever been seen at the Coliseum. The schemes are going to look similar, but we are going to go fast. It’s going to be a faster-paced game. Hopefully a more exciting game for our fans, one that captivates them and keeps them into the game and utilizes the home-field advantage the Coliseum can give you.”

The Trojans entered last season with questions marks, primarily who would start under center.

After the midseason firing of Lane Kiffin and the hiring of Sarkisian over interim head coach Ed Orgeron, the Trojans enter 2014 with many of those questions answered.

Kessler was named the starting quarterback in the spring, and is trying to adapt to a new offensive scheme that is drastically different from Kiffin’s system.

Gone are the days of pro-set, drop-back formations with the occasional, if not rare, quarterback roll out.

Enter a fast-paced, high-tempo offense that has both sides of the ball on its toes.

“One of our mentalities and mottos is ‘next play.’ Next play mentality. You can’t focus on what happened,” Kessler said. “It’s true, as soon as one play ends you’re automatically looking to the sideline for what formation, what play is next.”

The idea of turning the page extends to last season as a whole, which saw USC start the season 3-2, and finish third in the Pac-12 South at 10-4 overall, 6-3 in conference play.

“Stability is very important,” said defensive lineman Leonard Williams. “Playing last year under coach Kiffin, we heard a lot of rumors that he might get fired, and stuff like that, so it was really hard to fight for a guy that if you don’t know if they’ll be here tomorrow. Having a guy like coach Sark here, he’s such a great guy, we know he’s going to be here for our guys. It helps us a lot more to fight for him.”

It hasn’t taken long for the team to rally around its new head coach.

Sarkisian is familiar with USC, having coached there from 2001 to 2003 and 2005 to 2008, and has spent the last five seasons at the helm of Washington.

Kessler was even on the verge of committing to play for the Huskies before USC made him an offer that he accepted.

“I recruited Cody really hard coming out of high school,” Sarkisian said. “I thought I was getting him quite honestly. … But he was a really good high school basketball player as well as quarterback. He was competitive. He won a lot of games and I think that shows in his play.”

They’ll need him to win a lot of games this season if the Trojans want to return to the winning tradition that existed when Sarkisian was an assistant at USC under then-head coach Pete Carroll.

The Trojans face a difficult schedule, with road games at Stanford, UCLA and Boston College. They’ll finish the season at home against Notre Dame.

But they miss potential national-title contender Oregon and face last season’s South Division champion Arizona State at home.

The Trojans non-conference schedule consists of Fresno State, Boston College and Notre Dame, but USC recently announced it will play Alabama in 2016.

“I’ve said this all along, at SC and even when I was a kid, SC has always played the best opponents,” Sarkisian said. “I feel like we’ve always scheduled great non-conference games. This was a chance for us to do it. It was a chance for us to be a couple years removed from the sanctions. We’re going to need a full roster to play those guys, that’s for sure.”

Sarkisian is referring to sanctions that have hurt the Trojans over the last four years. USC is eligible for postseason play after bowl bans in 2010 and 2011, but roster limitations remain -- and the effect that will have on their new up-tempo offense remains to be seen.

All-American wide receiver Marqise Lee is now a member of Jacksonville Jaguars after being drafted in May, but the emergence of Nelson Agholor gives the Trojans high hopes that their aerial attack won’t miss a beat.

“If George (Farmer) plays the way he’s capable of playing, that’s a really good tandem when Nelson Agholor’s on the other side,” Sarkisian said. “And you have Darreius Rogers, throw in a Steven Mitchell, that group is really talented, plus some of the young guys coming up.”

Farmer is among, if not the, fastest players on the Trojans roster, but was forced to red shirt last season after tearing ligaments in his knee.

The defense will be led by a strong front seven that could be the team’s biggest asset.

“I love our front seven,” Sarkisian said. “I think our front seven is the strength of our football team. Leonard Williams, Antuan Woods, Scott Star, Hayes Pullard, Anthony Sarao, J.R. Tavai, Claude Pelon. I think it’s a great group. Really good football teams are good up front on defense, and we have a chance to be that.”

Combined with a more experienced secondary featuring guys like Su’a Cravens, Leon McQuay, Josh Shaw, Kevon Seymour, Gerald Bowman and Chris Hawkins, and the Trojans could be even better defensively than last season’s version that ranked 16th in the nation at 21.2 points allowed per game.

A lot rides on the Trojans ability to adapt to Sarkisian, though.

And fortunately for Trojan fans, that adjustment period seems to be moving forward with little instability.

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