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Xs and Os: Why Steve Sarkisian's USC won't mean a Lane Kiffin rehash

The Trojans will be embracing fully modern schemes on both sides of the ball, rather than making minor tweaks to the system of the past. Not the expected strategy from USC's former OC.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

It would be an understatement to say that USC fans were not terribly excited when athletic director Pat Haden spent most of the 2013 season looking for the next head coach only to hire another former offensive coordinator from the Pete Carroll glory days: Steve Sarkisian.

Adding salt to the wound, Washington then snatched up Boise State's Chris Petersen, long-rumored as USC's favorite target to replace both Carroll and Lane Kiffin. Popular interim coach Ed Orgeron was released back into the wild, and Trojans fans were left to witness Sarkisian make the second attempt at resurrecting 2000s glory.

While Orgeron and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast were able to successfully bring the Trojan defense to the top five in statistical rankings with a novel 5-2 front, Kiffin's pro-style offense never reached the heights of those Carson Palmer or Matt Leinart attacks.

However, the assumption that Sarkisian will bring the same strategies of the Carroll or Kiffin eras to USC is false. In 2013 the Huskies featured modern, even Oregonian-concepts on both sides of the ball, including the hurry-up, no huddle spread offense (much to the amusement of certain Ducks fans) and hybrid defensive fronts.

Mixing up the defense

Generally when a defensive coach says something like, "we're going to be a 5-2 defensive team," no one in the media really has any idea what he's talking about. They might respond with descriptions that seem more fanciful than factual.

"Maybe our defense will have the blitzes of Rex Ryan, the coverages of Bill Belichick ... and the antlers of a reindeer ..."

-- Your team's beat writer, probably

On the field, Pendergast's 5-2 defense proved to be a single-gapping front with three true linemen, two edge rushers in two-point stances outside of the tackles, then two inside linebackers and your typical four defensive backs. That was the base defense, with base defense defined as the personnel on the field against formations with fewer than three receivers.

Of course, USC played mostly spread teams, so it spent a lot of time in nickel. In these instances it employed what you would call a 2-4-5 formation:

The philosophy that Pendergast's 5-2 moniker and strategies represented was an outside-in approach to defending offenses. Defenses of the past were keen to spill the ball outside and pursue it with personnel chosen for speed. But when spread-option tactics evolved to allow offenses to abuse defenders on the perimeter, teams began to change that philosophy.

USC's 2-4-5 often employed a palms or quarters secondary structure. It was designed to control the edges and funnel the ball inside. This meant living with what the offense can manage by running at the heart of the D.


This setup has numerous advantages for the defense. The linebackers on the edge ("L") can stunt, pressure, or fit against the run in many different ways, due to their more versatile stance and positioning.

In the clip above, the field-side edge backer ends up filling the A-gap between the nose tackle and the defensive tackle. With that kind of flexibility in run fits and pass-rush lanes, the 2-4-5 is becoming one of the more versatile defenses in the game today, provided that the defense has powerful and explosive players like Devon Kennard or J.R. Tavai to handle those hybrid end/backer positions.

In the quarters coverage above, the outside linebackers ("N" and "W") control quick throws to the hash marks and play the edge against the run. The safeties stay deep and on top of things, but pick up the inside receivers in man coverage if they proceed down the field.

Screen_shot_2014-04-21_at_4.14.58_pm_mediumLeonard Williams (94) and J.R. Tavai (58) combined for 20.5 tackles for loss last year, and both return. Stephen Dunn, Getty

With former Tennessee and Washington DC Justin Wilcox taking over, much of this philosophy will remain in place, with two major adjustments on the defensive line. First, he'll ask some Trojan linemen to play two-gap techniques. And you can expect more 3-3 personnel packages than 2-4, with a rush outside linebacker playing on the line next to three big DL, rather than two bigger linemen and two outside linebackers.


However, Wilcox has the same philosophy about playing modern offenses outside-in. Whether the defense is playing a single-high safety coverage, as it tended to do against trips formations ...

... or a quarters scheme similar to what USC ran with Pendergast ...

... there's an emphasis on controlling the edge with the outside linebackers, forcing the ball inside, and trusting the safeties and corners to potentially play man coverage on vertical routes.

The advantage for USC in this transition is that their secondary assignments will remain largely intact, with a core of very good, returning players in the back seven. Meanwhile, the Trojan front is absolutely loaded with great defensive tackles brought in by the ultimate line recruiter, Orgeron.

Transitioning to a scheme that keeps three big bodies on the field most snaps will play well with a roster featuring stud linemen Leonard Williams, Antwaun Woods, Delvon Simmons, Claude Pelon, and Kenny Bigelow. Expect to see Woods and another of these players as two-gappers, while Williams is freed to attack interior gaps. Tavai should thrive in the outside jack linebacker position, which will be essentially the same as what he was asked to do in the 2013 defense.

Wilcox has a large variety of fronts he'll employ, but they mostly follow the rule of having two single-gappers and two two-gappers, then keeping linebackers or defensive backs in position to funnel the ball inside.

Updating the offense

Over the last couple years, Sarkisian has embraced the modern innovations in the world of spread offenses. He now incorporates three key tactics with his classic offensive strategies.


The hurry-up isn't a part of the attack for Sark. It's built into the identity of the program. The Trojans practice up-tempo to the extent that coaching has to wait until the film and meeting room, because the practice pace is too fast for detailed instructions.

In its last year of sanctions, USC will have 75 scholarships in 2014 before returning to 85 in 2015. That should slightly ameliorate the concerns of fatigue with playing up-tempo throughout games. Long term, going fast is a winning strategy for a program like USC.

While some still regard playing up-tempo as a sort of gimmick employed by less-talented teams, in reality it's the ultimate strategy for a major program.

By emphasizing speed, you require simplicity both in your offensive strategies and the defense's response. Defensive coaches who attempt to make lots of situational play calls against HUNH teams get smoked. So it becomes a matter of who can execute better. If you are the No. 1 program in talent-rich Southern California, you would prefer that every game comes down to which athletes can execute simpler schemes more efficiently.

Secondly, quicker tempo means more plays are run and more depth is utilized. Again, the bigger program benefits. If USC plays 50 offensive snaps vs. Fresno State or 80 offensive snaps, in which scenario is USC's talent given more chances to win out? Mathematically, by increasing the number of plays run in a football game, a major program decreases its chances of flukes.

Packaged plays

Packaged plays work hand in hand with the hurry-up to allow a team to run a simple offense that still has the ability to attack multiple parts of the field. The term "packaged plays" is generally applied to read-option plays in which the quarterback also has an option to throw a forward pass, but with Sarkisian, the offense is packaged in a few different ways.

First, you have the standard type of read-option package, such as combining an inside zone run with a bubble screen:

Then there's packaging route options, which is a trick Sarkisian and Kiffin utilized back in USC's heyday:

On either side of the play, the offense will run different route concepts. Sarkisian will either mix a cover 2-beater to one side with a cover 3-beater to the other or a zone-beater on one side and a man-beater on the other.

In this instance they run Y-stick, a great cover 2-beater to the field side and H-shoot to the boundary, which is hard to defend from cover-3. Quarterback Keith Price sees there is one deep safety, indicating either cover 1 or cover 3. Then he reads the flat defender, the linebacker, and sees him in position to defend the slant, so he throws to the running back running into the flat.


The quarterback should have started with the flat route by the running back and thrown the slant if the linebacker flew out to cover the running back. But on the chalkboard, Stanford was beaten.

Washington ranked 16th in the nation on passing downs in 2013, and despite Price not totally mastering this system, the Huskies had some real success.

In USC's receiving corps, electric punt returner and former five-star Nelson Agholor is the man now. Stephen Dunn, Getty

Flexed tight ends

If your tight end is a devastating matchup for coverage defenders, don't keep him on the line of scrimmage, where he can be banged on and slowed up at the line of scrimmage. Let him get out wide and make a linebacker or defensive back try and play press coverage out there.

On this play, Huskies star tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins runs a dig route over the middle against quarters coverage. The safety to his side is very mindful of this route and isn't there to help the cornerback, who's all alone against the post coming behind Seferian-Jenkins. Too easy for such a big gain.

USC will maintain some of the same zone running schemes that oversaw Bishop Sankey rush for 1,870 yards. Look for Sarkisian to tweak some of his Washington formations to involve a player like fullback Jahleel Pinner at an H-back position to clear lanes for "Buck" Allen and company to run buck wild over Pac-12 opponents.

The USC line, tight ends, Pinner, and Allen should find the slight adjustments to Kiffin's schemes will provide favorable angles and creases to exploit.

Hurry-up, no-huddle offenses with packaged concepts are the future for big programs with talent and depth advantages over their opponents. On both sides of the ball, Sarkisian is bringing schemes and tactics that represent where football is today.

If USC can maintain its advantages in recruiting and then do a good job of developing and deploying the vast amount of talent already on campus or in high schools not terribly far away, you'll never again hear USC fans complaining about this hire.