Pete Sampson: How surprised are you about the Steve Sarkisian situation considering you’re around USC every day?
Ryan Abraham: To me, the fallout from the Salute to Troy event changed the game. When he came out and insinuated a substance abuse problem, when he came out and talked about mixing prescription drugs and alcohol and getting treatment, that made it real to me. The part that stuck with me was that he promised that he wouldn’t drink anymore this year. After that, OK, you have to keep your nose clean or you could be legitimately fired at any point in the season. I don’t know if any of the reaction recently stemmed from losing to Stanford and Washington, but it wasn’t even close to keeping your nose clean for Sarkisian. It was completely the opposite.
Once that happened, once he was suspended, I didn’t think he’d be able to come back. You can’t do that.
The real failure to me is on the administration side. Because if you heard about this culture when he was at Washington and even going back to being an assistant at USC, followed by Salute to Troy, and you have him do up-downs and give him a talking to, that’s not treatment. This is a real problem. You have to get him serious help. I know it’s the beginning of the season, but you could save his life by sending him to treatment. I think the University did him a big disservice. I put a lot of this on the administration. How you didn’t know and how you didn’t get him in treatment before the season is just baffling.
PS: What do you think USC needs moving forward? You’ve seen the lists of 52 names that might fit. Who appeals to you?
RA: I made up some rules.
No. 1: No one who has had anything to do ever with Pete Carroll. You can’t try to recreate that over and over. You’re 0-for-2 with Carroll assistants. If you coached for Pete Carroll, you’re off the list.
No. 2: People talk about coaches off the beaten path. No. That’s all they’ve been doing. Get a proven college head coach who has won at a high level. Yes, that means USC wouldn’t have hired Pete Carroll in the first place. But at this point USC doesn’t need to try to hire another Pete Carroll, another NFL retread who’s fired up. That’s not happening. He was a once in a millennium hire.
No. 3: Don’t hire anybody on the hot seat. If they might get fired, you probably don’t want them. This is a Top Five job to me. Look at it as, “Would Ohio State, Notre Dame or Alabama hire that guy?” In the case of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, the answer is no. They wouldn’t have hired either of them.
PS: At some jobs I understand “getting” the school being important. Notre Dame might be one of those spots. But USC is in Los Angeles and has five-star recruits running around all over the place. What’s to get? Do you really need a connection to get it to work?
RA: I agree with you. That came from the administration more than anything. Pete Carroll didn’t get USC. But once they got that glory back, USC has just been trying to hold onto that magic. You can’t recreate that and they’ve been trying to do that. I don’t think this is a job where you need to get the culture to make it work.
Yeah, there are some culture things here, open access, media, spotlight. Would Chris Petersen or Chip Kelly work here? We haven’t seen that. That could be a thing where if you’re not good with the media or don’t let people talk to the media, people will just tune you out. You could be irrelevant. That’s one thing people are wary about, but I don’t know if that’s really a big deal. You don’t need to be a USC guy to get USC. It’s working at Michigan and it might work at Notre Dame, but I don’t get that.
PS: One thing Notre Dame did in hiring Brian Kelly is they only looked at current college head coaches. That’s it. Is that what USC needs now, combined with getting outside the Carroll regime? Who do you like?
RA: I think that’s a great criteria. I would agree with that, with the exception of Chip Kelly considering he’s won big in college. Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier would be exceptions too because they’ve had success in college.
Kyle Whitingham’s name comes up quite a bit. He’s been at Utah quite a while. Not sure if he would leave. It’s funny to see Brian Kelly’s name come up and Jim Mora’s name come up. It’s hard to picture a rival coach doing that. Jimbo Fisher’s name at Florida State, if he wants to stick in the ACC. Kevin Sumlin is somebody they took a semi-serious run at before, but I’m not sure they can again. He’s got a young, talented teams. Not sure he’d want to go anywhere.
PS: On the field, how much do you think USC is underachieving right now or is that impossible to measure because of off-the-field stuff?
RA: The more stuff that comes out with Sarkisian being under the influence at football events, that makes you think differently about questioning coaching decisions. What kind of leadership were these guys getting? The Washington game, they just didn’t look like the same team. Yes, that happens in college football when teams look different from week to week, but when you hear these stories you wonder if they were really getting the best coaching available. Will they get that going forward?
Talent-wise, I still think they’re a Top 10 team. I think they might be the most talented team in the Pac-12. They certainly haven’t played like the best team. If you look at the ESPN FPI, the only game they’re not favored to win is Notre Dame. They’re even favored over Utah, which is crazy. The talent is there, but I don’t know. Could getting rid of the head coach who’s having issues be a big boost? I don’t know. We just don’t know how they’re going to react.
PS: How significant is losing center Max Tuerk for the year? How healthy is USC right now?
RA: They have seven or eight guys on the offensive line that they like, so it’s not like a couple years ago when USC lost its center and it was a disaster against Stanford. They have Toa Lobendahn to replace him and he’s like a Swiss army knife on the line. He’s played every position. They did more under center stuff with him in the game last week and I thought they did a pretty good job.
Tuerk is a great player, but USC thinks it has a good player to replace him. Other than Tuerk, they’ve been relatively healthy all year. Tuerk is really the first starter to go down for the year.
PS: Is the offensive identity of this team much different from last year when USC blew out Notre Dame? Other than freshman running back Ronald Jones, this seems like very similar talent.
RA: The run game is different because it’s a Tre Madden-Justin Davis-Ronald Jones thing. They have some weird rotation that I don’t quite understand because you’ll see a guy get hot and then they take him out. They’ve all had big play moments, but the cohesiveness in the run game hasn’t been there.
The passing game is more about JuJu Smith being the main target. They don’t use the tight end really at all. Steven Mitchell has kind of emerged at receiver. They’ve used Adoree Jackson in different ways, sometimes not at all, sometimes a lot. He’s that X-factor. Washington did a great job of shutting him down. Every time he caught a pass there was someone there.
PS: Defensively, replacing Leonard Williams was going to be impossible, but I was surprised watching the Washington game how many freshmen and young guys were into the game. What do you make of that side of the ball?
RA: It’s been a disappointment for the most part. They have a lot of bodies. The defensive line is a big rotation and a lot of true freshmen are playing, but you haven’t seen a spectacular edge rusher. There’s not consistent pressure. There’s not a lot of blitzing. You see guys get engaged in blocks and not make plays. There’s not a lot of tackles for loss (USC ranks No. 101 in TFLs).
The defense really comes down to individual matchups. Linebacker Su’a Cravens can break through and make a play on his own, but team-wise you’re not seeing guys in great positions. It’s been pedestrian up front without Leonard Williams. They’re deeper, but they don’t have playmakers.
PS: Putting you on the spot. Give me a prediction.
RA: I think USC could come in and play lights-out, winning by a couple touchdowns. I could see Notre Dame blowing USC’s doors off and boat racing them. But if I had to take one, I’d say a close game, 28-24 to Notre Dame. If it’s close, I don’t think USC is going to have a lot of success. You can’t expect them to pull something out when they haven’t been able to come back in many games anyway. If USC wins, they have to get up. It’s a front-running offense. When the offense is clicking early, they seem to be able to keep it going.