Ed Orgeron promised fun at Southern California when he replaced Lane Kiffin, and that’s what the Trojans got on the irrepressible interim coach’s first day of practice.
The Trojans also got cookies.
Orgeron’s booming Cajun drawl echoed over the campus fields Wednesday while the Trojans concentrated on drills designed to raise their competitive fire. Although many players are still stunned by Kiffin’s firing Sunday, Orgeron is making sure the Trojans (3-2, 0-2 Pac-12) realize their season hasn’t stopped — and there’s still plenty of fun to be had.
"This is my shot," said Orgeron, USC’s defensive line coach and the former Mississippi head coach. "This is our shot, as a team. I didn’t know if I’d ever become a head coach again, but I do have a shot and I’m going to give it my best. I’m excited for it. I think I’m very well prepared for it. Under the circumstances, they’re adverse, but I’ve been through adverse circumstances before."
The Trojans were blown out by Arizona State last weekend, but Orgeron clearly thinks his talent-laden roster will benefit just as much from an attitude adjustment as any strategy shifts during his administration.
Orgeron already has made cosmetic changes that could make a difference: Players were thrilled when he returned desserts to the training table meals this week.
"You feed a lineman a cookie, he’s happy, you know?" Orgeron asked.
The Trojans’ next game is at home against Arizona on Oct. 10, giving Orgeron more than a week to address whatever problems he sees in a winning team that hasn’t impressed anybody this season.
The Trojans seemed excited about the change from the taciturn Kiffin to Orgeron, who is known for roaming outside his position group during USC’s practices. As USC’s top recruiter, Orgeron also helped to draw many players at every position to Los Angeles.
"He did exactly what we’re supposed to do — pick up the torch when somebody goes down," USC receiver Nelson Agholor said. "All he did was light another fire for us to get better. He’s going to do a great job building this team. … I’m grateful for everything Coach Kiffin did for me. A lot of people probably wish it would have gone different. For me, it’s a business, and I can’t control that."
Quarterback Cody Kessler was recruited by Kiffin, but Orgeron had one-on-one conversations with the high schooler in Bakersfield. Kessler is confident Orgeron is the right choice for the interim job — and he knows Orgeron will be in his ear, even if he’s not an offensive coach.
"I love being able to get into the offense," Orgeron said. "Get them right, scream at the quarterback, all that kind of stuff. I thought the team was very receptive to all of the coaches. There’s going to be a lot of things we have to improve, but as long as we continue to compete like Trojans, we’re going to be good."
The Trojans’ new offensive coordinator is Clay Helton, USC’s quarterbacks coach and an assistant on Kiffin’s staff since 2010. Helton, a longtime Memphis assistant, will call the plays from the sideline with assistant Tee Martin up in the box.
But don’t expect big changes from Kiffin’s much-criticized game plans, which were filled with counterintuitive play-calls, a peculiar preoccupation with bubble screens, and enough head-scratching decisions to drive many Coliseum fans to heavy boos in recent weeks.
"Him and Coach Helton were always on the same page," Kessler said. "I don’t feel like I’m going from one play-caller to someone that calls totally different formations and plays."
That offense might not include receiver Marqise Lee next week. The Biletnikoff Award-winner has a sprained knee from Arizona State, and Orgeron didn’t sound optimistic about his chances of playing.
"We’re going to try to get him ready for next Thursday," Orgeron said. "You know Marqise Lee makes some miraculous recoveries."
Orgeron’s willingness to discuss injuries was another change from Kiffin’s tenure. So was Orgeron’s immediate decision to allow media back into practice after Kiffin kicked out reporters at the start of the year, completing a process of gradually rolling back access to a program that was famously open to the outside world.
Tailback Silas Redd was persuaded to transfer from Penn State to USC last season by Kiffin and his entire staff. He described the news of Kiffin’s ouster as "shock and awe."
Although Redd hasn’t played this season while recovering from a knee injury, he is back in practice with plans to play next week against Arizona.
"I had no clue that (a coaching change) was coming after that game," Redd said. "We’re going to have fun, though. This is a fun team, and today was exactly that. They’re just two different types of people. Coach Kiffin is more strict. Coach O is more loose."