Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is a hot head-coaching prospect and runs a unit that -- if recruiting rankings are to be believed -- is as talented annually as any in the nation.
Of course, when an offense is perceived as owning elite talent, the margin for error is small and fans are quick to criticize when things aren't perfect. More than a few believe the Trojans 32.6 points and 434.9 yards per game in 2007 qualified as underachieving, regardless of the critical injuries at many key positions.
So with just four starters back on offense, what's in store in 2008? Is quarterback Mark Sanchez the man? What's up with the logjams at tailback and receiver? And is an offensive line with just one returning starter in trouble?
Sark stopped by for a chat.
What did Mark Sanchez do in the spring to jump ahead in the quarterback race?
Steve Sarkisian: The first thing that jumps out is he has a great comfort level with the offense. He does a nice job handling the offense as far as making the proper checks, the audibles, getting the ball into guys' hands quickly. But on top of that I think we felt and saw his energetic leadership. We saw a charismatic guy who loved to come out and work and practice every day and I think it was contagious for the entire football team. Those are some of the qualities you like to see in a leader, a guy who makes those around him better.
Is there a chance that someone else will start at quarterback in the opener at Virginia?
SS: Up until now [Sanchez] won the job. But we're going to give those other guys their opportunities in fall camp to go out and compete and prove they're worthy of playing time. But up until this point, Mark is the guy for us.
It seems like the competition remains wide-open at tailback, with a bunch of guys who could end up starting or at least get a lot of carries: How does the pecking order stack up there?
SS: If we were going to play today you'd see three guys: You'd see Joe McKnight. You'd see Stafon Johnson. You'd see C.J. Gable. For sure those three. But I think you're also going to get a little dose of Allen Bradford as well. Now that doesn't mean Allen Bradford couldn't be the lead dog by the end of camp. And that doesn't mean Marc Tyler or Broderick Green couldn't get in the mix. But coming out of spring football, those three guys really established themselves. And Allen Bradford made a lot of noise.
You guys have so many talented running backs, but has there been much discussion among the coaches about maybe picking one horse, one guy who gets 25 carries a game?
SS: Not really. We've always had -- go back to when it was Justin Fargas and Sultan McCullough -- we've always had sort of a two-horse-type backfield with a third guy who was kind of a variety-type guy who can do a lot of different things. So we've always been that way. Sure, preferably you'd like it to be two solid guys where you know what you're getting. But right now we're looking at three or four guys. But I think that kind of stuff kind of settles itself out. Injuries come into play and guys step up. But it's good to know we've got that luxury at that position because it is a tough position to sustain and stay healthy at. As you saw last year. The moment Stafon Johnson established himself as the back, he got hurt and then Chauncey Washington played and Joe McKnight stepped up when we lost C.J. Gable after the third game. So, obvious, it's a luxury to have three guys there -- or four or five.
Same thing at receiver: What's the pecking order there?
SS: Coming out of spring football you really saw Vidal Hazelton really rise to the challenge. He was a -catch guy as a sophomore and really was playing injured. He got healthy during spring football and looked fantastic. Patrick Turner, I think, is poised for a big-time senior season, and Damian Williams, a transfer from Arkansas, really impressed people. The two young guys, David Ausberry and Ronald Johnson, really stepped up in spring and got better. Then there are some dark horses in there: Travon Patterson, and a true freshman by the name of Brice Butler is coming into the mix. I think it is a really good position group for us because we've got a lot of depth there. But, again, we're looking for two or three guys to really step up and take over that spot and be the go-to guys for us.
The receivers as a group took some criticism last year. Was that fair? Were you disappointed in some of the production?
SS: Well, I think as a group offensively we were disappointed in ourselves as a whole. That position group was young and inexperienced and had some drops early in the season. And to compound that they were replacing maybe the greatest tandem of receivers in college football history in Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett. I think that made that discrepancy even bigger. There was a lot of pressure on them last year, but I really like how they ended the year. They grew up. I like the way Vidal ended the year. It was unfortunate that Patrick Turner couldn't play in th
e bowl game. But he got better during the year. And I think David Ausberry got better and Ronald Johnson got better and it carried over to spring practice. They'll be ready for fall camp.
The offensive line needs four new starters. Is this a reload or rebuild?
SS: Last year we were hit with an injury bug up front all last year; it seemed like every week we had a different starting five. That forced a lot of our young kids to have to play last year, whether that was Charles Brown or Zach Heberer or Kristofer O'Dowd, the true freshman. So those guys got a lot more experience than I think people realize. It sounds like we're an inexperienced group because we're replacing four starters. But in reality these guys have played a lot of football and we're excited about them. This is an ornery group. They're competitive and athletic and tough and nasty. I think realistically we're a good eight deep with guys who can play. The challenge for us is to just get cohesive as we go through fall camp.
Of the guys we maybe haven't heard much about, who's going to break out this year?
SS: I don't know how to answer that. We've got a lot of kids who are very talented who have kind of just waited for their opportunity. The guy who jumps out at me is [tight end] Anthony McCoy, the guy who's played behind Fred Davis the last couple of years. I'm anxious to see [fullback] Stanley Havili as a sophomore. Damian Williams the transfer from Arkansas. And I'm anxious to see our quarterback play. I expect him to play really well and I think he expects to play really well. I wouldn't be surprised if he went out and had a great year.
Your name seems to come up a lot during coaching searches the past couple of years. What are your thoughts on your future as far as becoming a head coach? Do you have a timeline? Are you anxious about it?
SS: There's no question I'd love someday to be a head football coach. But I'm extremely fortunate. I am at a tremendous place at a tremendous time. Pete Carroll has been very good to me. We're winning. We've got great kids. We get to live in Los Angeles. I love it. I'm in no rush to get out of here. Every day is learning, watching how Pete handles our football team. I have fun going to work every day. So, yeah, I want to be a head football coach. But I'm not in any rush.