Sark after a year plus . . . a 2nd look

There's one reason to look back at Steve Sarkisian's first full year and more at USC: You may just figure out what's coming next.

It's more than a full year -- and a first full recruiting class cycle -- into the Steve Sarkisian Era of USC football and maybe just the time to take a second look back at how it's all going together.

We've all taken our first shots at how this has been progressing when things happen, of course. But here's a chance to do it in one sweeping second take that replaces the second guesses -- positive and negative -- that any and every USC football coach will find coming his way.

*** There were no parades that December day in 2013 when Sark was named the guy. The bittersweet loss of Ed Orgeron and most of his well-respected staff guaranteed that. And as one after another of the USC holdovers were replaced with guys from Sark's Washington staff, it wasn't an easy beginning, especially for players losing coaches they'd bonded with still in the building for the bowl game. Give Sark a good grade here for managing this although we'd have liked more of a blended staff, 50-50 between the guys here already who had gone through two years with limited numbers thanks to NCAA sanctions and not a mostly first-time crew that may have overreacted at times, in games and practices, to suiting up fewer than 50 originally recruited scholarship players. But as we've seen in this last recruiting season, that close working relationship may have paid off.

*** Sark & Co. reacted exactly right in closing out his first recruiting class, and USC's final sanctions-limited group, with the signing day trio of Adoree Jackson, Juju Smith and Damien Mama. Hard to imagine getting through 2014 without them, or the sense of optimism that finish generated.

*** Good job also in introducing a different, maybe more thorough weight and conditioning offseason program. Attention to detail here seemed to matter more than getting outside for winter throwing and the players noticed. Spring would be plenty of time for doing that. This attention to detail didn't always carry the day once the season got here. But good start.

*** Spring ball seemed more of a further getting-to-know-you moment and almost a prep time for the summer players-only workouts. The emphasis on an unprecedented uptempo way of doing things didn't really kick in until then. The 100 plays in 45 minutes summer sessions led by the likes of Cody Kessler, Nelson Agholor and Josh Shaw seemed to mark the arrival of Sark's speeded-up system.

*** Senior captain Shaw's off-the-field end-of-August escapade and USC's ultimate release of his false heroic story about how he was injured would dominate the week in college football nationally before the start of the season and become a three-month-and-more cloud over the program before the first kickoff. Seldom do we get to say this but this was one of those situations where no one -- player, coaches, administrators -- got it right.

*** But for the most part, the summer seemed to meld smoothly into a fast-moving August which was, as advertised, a different way of doing things that lasted all the way through the Fresno State opener. Trojans fans feeling good about the transition.

*** Things slowed down in Week 2, unless you count the kerfuffle as always at Stanford over the conduct of Pac-12 officials and the arrival of AD Pat Haden on the sidelines to intercede for Sark, experiencing his first USC-at-Stanford moment. We liked the way that played out although clearly that was the minority position on a day when a winning result against a self-destructing Stanford team that couldn't figure out the red zone was all that mattered. Things were headed in the right direction, it appeared, for the No. 9 Trojans.

*** Except the direction the Trojans were headed was Back East to face a fired-up and veteran Boston College team ready to get in a slugfest on the ground with a young finesse-first Trojan team that could neither block the run nor defend the option even against a team that couldn't throw the ball. USC's early lead could not have been more misleading for a Trojan team that just needed to throw the ball, score as many points as it had to in order to survive and get out of Dodge with a win -- and then figure out how to get physical on both sides of the ball. This was the first real sign that game-week prep and in-game decision-making were not up to USC speed just yet.

*** The Oregon State romp got things back on track a bit with the pass defense stepping up but the next week's "Jael Mary" finish to complete the collapse in the final three minutes went the other way against a completely confused Trojan secondary and sideline. Thank goodness the Arizona kicker was off-track at the final gun or 2014 would have gone from sideways to backwards in October with a late fizzle at Utah in another game that seemed just a play away from the win column turned into Loss No. 3. Not much happening here to generate, among players or fans, a sense of a staff that had -- or would have when the time came in games -- the right answers.

*** One aspect that was being handled extremely well here, however, was the unprecedented use of true freshman starters on the offensive line. No ranked team that we can think of has ever managed to do this. It isn't done and really can't be done, most football people would tell you. And yet Sark did. Not always with perfect results. But there was a carryover here on both sides of the ball as USC managed to make major use of freshmen starters Jackson, Smith, Bryce Dixon and John Plattenburg in addition to Toa Lobendahn, Viane Talamaivao and Mama on the O-line. This mattered more than just on the field as we'll note later.

*** Another bad-weather game at woeful Washington State where USC handled things well before back home for a game against Cal that, as often happened, had USC going off for a half and then holding on to make things much closer than they should have been. Not exaclly a confidence-builder going into a UCLA game where the Trojans, for the third straight season with a third straight coaching staff, simply got bullied and beaten to the punch play after play after play. Sad in every way. Trojans looked lost from the start as if the gameplan told them they weren't good enough to line up and beat the Bruins.

*** But as he had all season, Sark was able to rally the troops for archrival No.2 Notre Dame in a near-record win at the Coliseum. Practice may have slowed down to a walk some days from midseason on with the worry about numbers, even if that excuse was never exactly verbalized, but USC picked it up against an Irish team that in an irony of ironies had fewer healthy players than USC did for the 2014 finale. Terrific way to finish this rollercoaster ride of a season. Especially so for the positive spin it put on recruiting.

*** But in one of those good news/bad news deals, there was the late return of Shaw from his suspension after the lethargic LAPD determined there was no criminal conduct as Shaw had contended all season long. Shaw's return should have happened far sooner than Week 11 and was a major fail for all involved -- or maybe not involved as they should have been. This was an innocent, if completely compromised, student-athlete who deserved someone at USC to make the case for him. And this young USC team deserved to have him back far sooner when Josh could have helped his younger teammates.

*** The Holiday Bowl proved the Trojans hadn't put 2014 completely behind them as USC sprinted away from a Nebraska team with talent -- and serious issues under an interim coach -- only to forget to finish out the fourth quarter on both sides of the ball before holding on to win. But it was a win, just way too close a call than it should have been in a 9-4 season full of them. The offense -- at least for the first three quarters most games and on other than the short-yard run game -- seems to be in good hands. The defense? Not so much. Not enough playmaking despite having playmakers. Seemed to be far too much standing around and hoping the other team screwed up. Sure, that worked for Bill Belichick on the goal line in the Super Bowl. But probably not the way for USC to go in the future with the kinds of athletes the Trojans are recruiting.

*** And for a USC program where the coaching staff, especially on the defensive side, didn't always seem to be on the same page, recruiting was a far different story. As our Gerard Martinez has documented so well, the team approach coordinated by Peter Sirmon, with one, then two and three USC coaches involved with every recruit, really paid off, creating an absolute sense of the Trojan family. The No. 1 class USC produced was a tribute, first of all, to USC. The Trojan program, with its tradition and location, its history and future on a campus full of academic buzz in a big, bustling city where top players can see a numbers game that could get them on the field right away, created the perfect storm. This was a team with a chance to get itself into the 2015 College Football Playoffs and a Season 2 recruiting triumph for Sark, whose first full year recruiting was even more successful than his finishing close a year ago with Adoree, JuJu and Damien.

*** And now we look ahead to spring with a more commited nutrition program, for example, and a weight and conditioning regimen we're hearing is more thorough and demanding with so many young players potential beneficiaries. We'll know more in spring this year than we did in Year 1. But what Sark has been saying, about "demanding" that he's going to have a team looking to find its inner "bully" with a commitment to playing "physical football" -- well, we like the sound of that. Now we'll see what Sark does to make that happen. As USC friends and foes are saying, now that Sark has 'em, he has to show that he can coach 'em.

Year 1 and then some shows Sark to be a quick-footed coach who learns on the run, a rally-around guy who doesn't stay down for long despite some play-it-safe tendencies that now that he's back and the head man at USC, he'll have to overcome.

He has no choice. A program picked to make the College Football Playoffs with the nation's No. 1 recruiting class now off NCAA sanctions with a tradition second to none and a location to match, has to go for it . . . has to play every 60-minute game the way it does the first quarter . . . has to have the best, or one of the handful of best, coaches in college football.

Lots of guys never get the chance to show what they can do. Sark surely will. As he already has.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.


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