Back at USC, Steve Sarkisian ready to revitalize Trojans
What's a tougher act to follow? One of the best college coaches ever? Or becoming the third coach in less than a year?
If you're Steve Sarkisian, why choose when you can have both?
The 40-year old former BYU quarterback has been adjusting to the reins of one of a job with some of the highest expectations in the country at USC in the last few months. And Lane Kiffin's tumultuous tenure hasn't really lowered the bar in Troy.
If it seems like a mountainous challenge, that's because it is. But you wouldn't know it from Sarkisian's reverent enthusiasm as he tries to lift USC back to glory.
"I think for decades, SC has set that standard in quality of play," he said in an interview with the Tribune. "You look at the coaches who have been here: John McKay, John Robinson. Obviously you could argue Pete Carroll had seven years here than were the best in college football history. We'd love to replicate some of those moments, and I think we have the personnel to do it."
Sarkisian comes from Washington, compiling a 34-29 record in his tenure there. While he still has a shine to him left over from his term as an assistant under Carroll, more than a few have questioned whether he's ready for leading a blue-blood powerhouse back into a national title contender.
One of Sarkisian's biggest tasks has nothing to do with Carroll's shadow, however. Almost his entire spring roster has dealt with seismic changes in the past year: from Kiffin's abrupt exit just a few games into the season, to Ed Orgeron's emotional yet short stint as interim head coach.
With so much turnover, Sarkisian acknowledged he's had to work hard to build trust.
"I think for me, it's all about being real with them," he said. "I've done that from the day I've gotten hired. I'm here for them: I'm here to develop them as a player, a person, and a student. They're starting to really recognize that."
From a talent standpoint, USC isn't exactly a fixer-upper.
The Trojans boast some of the best athletes in the conference. Quarterback Cody Kessler, who helped the team win 10 games down the stretch, returns and will start. Although losing Marquise Lee hurts, Nelson Agholor has proven adept as a wideout after catching 56 passes for nearly 1000 yards last year. As always, they have running backs in spades, including some of the highest-ranked prospects in the country. Defensively, Sarkisian returns several key starters from a defense that was No. 13 in the nation last year.
Where USC has to really solidify is on the offense line. That progress didn't look great in the spring game, when the offense gained only 257 yards on the day.
"There's still some question marks there," he said. "It's imperative for us to shore up that position group. The rest of our skill positions are really in a good place, but our line has to be in position to help those guys succeed."
Assuming some things swing the right way, there's a chance for USC to surprise this fall. Although the Trojans still have a somewhat thin roster thanks to sanctions that are still be phased out, their top-line talent always puts them in the conversation for a conference title.
Temporarily, UCLA has looked like the better L.A., stealing the last two contests in the rivalry series between two schools. Sarkisian hopes he can put USC back in that discussion.
"I think we have the quality of player in place to make a run," he said. "But we have a lot of work to do to get ourselves to that point."
Kyle Goonkgoon@sltrib.comTwitter: @kylegoon