Day One of the Sarkisian Era

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Sarkisian retained Clay Helton and offered a job to Ed Orgeron yesterday during his first full day as the official USC head coach. Sark still has plenty more work to do filling out his staff.

It's not unusual to see a football team dedicate a game to its coach. Players with a deep connection to their head coach will often offer him high praise in postgame interviews, dedicate tweets to him or even treat him to an occasional Gatorade shower after a big win.

What is unusual is when players dedicate a win to someone who isn't actually their coach.

Ed Orgeron was neither the interim head coach, assistant coach nor future head coach when USC went out and won the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl for their beloved "Coach O." The adored former defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator turned interim head coach midway through the year resigned from the position before USC's trip to the Vegas Bowl after it was announced Steve Sarkisian would be named the head coach.

But players dedicated their final victory of 2013 not to the group of graduating seniors and not to then interim head coach Clay Helton but to the man who quit on the team before the season was over. That's how powerful of a connection Orgeron made with his team during his 8-game tenure at the helm.

For incoming head coach Sarkisian, the undivided loyalty from the team toward the man they thought should have received the job provides an interesting challenge for him as he officially starts his turn as head coach of USC. How will he command the respect of the locker room? Can he possibly keep the energy and enthusiasm as high as Orgeron did?

In an interesting move yesterday, Sarkisian reportedly offered Orgeron a spot on his staff. Athletic Director Pat Haden previously offered Orgeron an assistant head coaching position after Sarkisian was hired, but Orgeron opted out to pursue head coaching options elsewhere.

Sarkisian was expected to bring Tosh Lupoi, his defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator at Washington, to USC to fill the same positions. However, allegations Lupoi paid for a recruit's tutoring in high school have knocked Lupoi out of consideration for a spot on Sarkisian's staff. Sarkisian offered Orgeron to take those two positions, though it is unclear if Orgeron will accept the offer.

If Orgeron were to accept, Sarkisian would have a man many players on the team call a father figure. That's not necessarily a good thing, as Sarkisian will have to establish a clear hierarchy of leadership. Players clearly wanted Orgeron to have the job, and Orgeron clearly wanted the job as well, making it unlikely that Orgeron would accept a role as one of Sarkisian's subordinates. But if Orgeron does accept and makes it clear he knows his role on the staff, Sarkisian has a world-class recruiter and very valuable asset in the locker room.

Sarkisian has already got the other former interim head coach of the Trojans on board for next year, as Helton has reportedly agreed to work on next year's staff. He has served as a quarterbacks coach, a passing game coordinator, an offensive coordinator without play calling duties and an offensive coordinator with play calling duties, so it is unclear what exact role Helton will play in the offense.

One move that may concern Trojan fans is Sarkisian has announced he plans on calling plays on offense. Though he was a valued offensive assistant and coordinator during the height of the Pete Carroll era, Trojan fans have an awfully bad taste in their mouth from the last time a young Carroll assistant turned head coach decided to keep the play calling duties in Lane Kiffin. In fact, many Trojan fans expressed concern that Sarkisian's tenure would be a lot like Kiffin's as the two are very similar.

But personality wise, Sarkisian is far more outgoing and personable than the often shy and evasive Kiffin. Likewise, his head coaching record shows that Sarkisian is capable of building a program up to new heights whereas Kiffin's resume is really only highlighted by stints as an assistant. Specifically to the offense, Sarkisian has promised to keep his assistants very involved in the playcalling process and he said the team will adapt from a traditional pro-style to a more up-tempo, no-huddle scheme, showing he's more open minded than the often stubborn Kiffin.

Much of the rest of Sarkisian's staff is yet to be determined. Current USC wide receivers coach Tee Martin signed a recent extension, and he will likely remain in the same roll. Former Washington assistants Keith Heyward will likely serve as the secondary coach and Peter Sirmon as the linebackers coach. Sarkisian has brought a third assistant coach over from Washington, Johnny Nansen, though his role is unclear.

Nansen has worked as a running backs coach, a special teams coordinator and a defensive line coach. However, the major decision on whether current Trojan defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will be retained is still in question. Pendergast ran a very successful 5-2 formation throughout the season, as USC's 20.2 points against average was second in the Pac-12 and 20th in the nation. However, Sarkisian has said he wants to run a 3-4 instead of a 5-2.

The initial reaction to his hire was highly criticized, but more cerebral and less emotional analyses of his selection over Coach O have been much more positive. Sarkisian still has a lot of questions to answer regarding his staff, but he's nailed every appearance he's made before the media, and more importantly, he's already made a big splash in recruiting.

Addressing arguably USC's most pressing issue, Sarkisian has already got three big-name offensive linemen to sign letters of intent with USC, including, three-star tackle Jordan Austin, four-star guard Toa Lobendahn and four-star tackle Chris Brown. Though the team is a couple of years from reaching the end of its NCAA sanctions, Trojan fans have to be excited for what Sarkisian can bring to the table in the future with a full roster.

The Pac-12 and college football as a whole have got more competitive than they were back at the height of the Carroll era, but USC has endured some of the toughest penalties from the NCAA in history and still stuck around the national conversation. If Sarkisian can balance enough of the old school wisdom that put USC on the map about a decade ago with new school theory on how to match stride with the new perennial forces in the Pac-12, USC may finally be able to climb back on top the pedestal of college football.

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