Upbeat about eye in sky, 3 new scholly guys

USC finishes up its game-week prep Thursday for Arkansas State as it relocates a coach, rewards 3 walkons with scholarships.

"Pretty upbeat," was the best way to describe where Steve Sarkisian -- and his USC team -- were just two days before the Arkansas State opener (8 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) at the Coliseum, the USC coach said after Thursday's closed 90-minute workout in helmets, shorts, no pads.

Typical for where a team should be going into its first game. Asked if he was "curious" as to how his Trojans would do, Sark said he wasn't quite sure "curious" was the right word.

"Anticipating watching" his team would be more like it, Sark said. Looking forward to it. Like any USC fan about now.

Also anticipating how having defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, in an exchange with offensive coordintor and new playcaller Clay Helton, would now be calling the defense from the pressbox booth.

"Justin's going to the box," Sark said simply about the new look for his coordinator calling a new-look defense built on plenty of substitutions and all sorts of combinations and rotations.

"The defensive position coaches will be in charge of it," Sark said of "a different substitution pattern that is new to us." Although not completely.

"A lot of it's on the players," Sark said, describing the plan, the pattern, the game situations that will allow them to get in and the ones that won't, when the clock is stopped and when it's not. "We'll have a set pattern on when we're supposed to do it . . . a pattern, as much as we can do it."

With Helton calling the plays from the field level after consultation with wide receivers coach Tee Martin as the eye in the sky, the two quarterbacks -- with Sark on the line and Marques Tuiasosopo chiming in -- USC will approach the offense from a different direction.

And it's clearly a different angle for Wilcox, who was down on the field last fall after stints as D at Tennessee and Boise State where he called the defense from up above.

"I just felt it was better for his eyes," Sark said. But it's not like Wilcox will be alone up there. "I'll be more concerned with defense," Sark said. Suggesting. Encouraging. Doing all the head coach things now that he's not having to schedule the next possession's play list.

"I feel really good about the gameplan," Sark said, "and helping with Coach [Johnny] Nansen on special teams. "Another set of eyes" for both Nansen and Wilcox, Sark said.

So will all the new duties, with the shedding of the old playcalling ones, change his workload -- and the way he decompresses after games?

"I don't know," Sark said of what it will be like after a game where all his duties are essentially that of a head coach. "That may be a better question for after the game."

During the game, he plans to "not butt in" but to tell them when to "take a shot and go for it" on fourth down, for example. Just doing all the "head coaching" stuff, he said.


Sark talked about how awarding these three scholarships in the prepractice team meeting -- something that carried over to hug-ins by their teammates after practice -- made for the kind of special moment that brings a team together.

"These guys worked hard and they earned it," Sark said, noting that all the walk-ons do just that -- "every guy out here." But here are the three they could award scholarships to.

*** George Katrib: The 6-0, 185-pound senior from Diamond Bar earned back his scholarship from 2014 with his consistent performance on special teams -- he's on three of them this season -- and his "fantastic tackling," Sark said, that produced eight tackles last fall. George is also an excellent backup wide receiver and will see action there.

*** Alex Wood: Sark talked about how the redshirt junior from Mercer Island, WA., stepped up "in a pinch for us at Arizona" last year when it was a day-of-the-game decision that he'd be the kicker. Alex had done it before, actually, stepping in for an injured Andre Heidari at the Syracuse game in 2012. He's now 20 for 20 on extra point tries in two seasons as well as assuming kickoff duties the last half of 2014 when he knocked 14 of his 48 kickoffs into the end zone and pinned opponents inside their 20 on another 11. And this fall, he's beaten out blueshirt scholarship winner Matt Boermeester for the job. USC's entire placekicking trio of snapper Zach Smith, holder Conner Sullivan and kicker Wood are all walk-ons who have earned scholarships for this year.

*** Christian Tober: the 5-foot-8, 175-pound wide receiver/punt returner from San Clemente is the guy you do not want to get matched up in one-on-one coverage drills if you're a defensive back. Too many moves. Too good a pair of hands. Too much speed. If it takes a double 360-degree move to get free, as he demonstrated one day, Christian will do it. He can get deep on you. And he won't drop it. "He's had an excellent spring and fall," Sark said of Tober who missed most of last year with a broken collarbone. "He's earned his teammates' respect" with his "tremendous hands" . . . and a "feel for the game," Sark said.


The three new scholarship guys bring USC's total count to 81, not counting Bryce Dixon, whose status we haven't resolved with Compliance as to how that one counts, which could up the number to 82 . . . no change in status mentioned for the three players Sark pretty much took off the board for Saturday: Lamar Dawson, Justin Davis and Claude Pelon . . . best hope for those three is to be ready for Game 2 against Idaho, Sark said . . . no Jordan Simmons either . . . Ykili Ross (shoulder) and Jordan Austin (ankle sprain) both out of the opener, Sark said . . . USC will have a typical closed walkthrough before the "Jock Rally" and trip to the team hotel Friday to prepare for Saturday's game.

CHECK THIS OUT: For more details after Thursday's workout, check out THURSDAY OPENING GAME WEEK GHOST NOTES.

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

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