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You wonder whether they let Steve Sarkisian keep his key card for the USC football offices, knowing he would surely find his way back.

Having established himself as an incurable Trojan, Sarkisian is now intent on setting other more meaningful standards as the USC head football coach.

When he left Washington last December and headed south it became his fifth stint on the USC campus.

“You start thinking about John McKay and John Robinson and Pete Carroll, and I’m humbled by it,” he mused awhile back of great Trojan coaches. “I’m proud of the fact I’m that kid from Torrance. They know I’m one of them and that is really important to me.”

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Sark was there in the early ’90s as a student, he returned as a grad assistant after finishing college at BYU, he did a third tour as an assistant coach, and after a side trip to the NFL, he came back as offensive coordinator.

And now this. Presumably, he’d like to make stop No. 5 at USC his last one. He spoke rapturously on Pac-12 Networks about being back, “smelling the ocean air.” But before he might begin to sniff a bit of the national stage, Sarkisian must abide the reality that USC is still down in numbers, even as the NCAA’s scholarship sanctions (30 over three years) are finally done.

Predecessor Lane Kiffin seemed to struggle perpetually with how to manage it, worrying over how much to hit and tackle in practice. Indeed, Sarkisian addressed it recently, saying, “I think our tackling is going to be very good. We have to work on tackling every single day in practice.”

Yet he wanted a fall camp that’s “hard, hard enough, but not too hard, to where we’re not prepared to play.”

In its season-ending win over Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl, USC had only 44 recruited scholarship players available. In six games last year, the Trojans got by using a mere 14 players on defense.

“We have to be fortunate from an injury standpoint,” Sarkisian said. “I think we’ve got a good football team that has a chance to do something pretty special.”

So far, luck has been only fleeting. USC has lost defensive lineman Kenny Bigelow and linebacker Jabari Ruffin for the season, and stud defensive tackle Leonard Williams has been limited in camp because he is nursing a sore shoulder.

Williams acknowledges there was some initial indifference to Sarkisian — not because of the choice but because the Trojans had been through so much. By the time Sark arrived, USC had its fourth head coach in 65 days, going through Kiffin, Ed Orgeron, and for the bowl game, offensive coordinator Clay Helton.

“A lot of the players weren’t really for any coaches,” said Williams. “It was like, ‘Whatever, we’re just going to be together.’ He did a great job getting us to buy into what he said.”

The Trojans are hardly without talent, as evidenced during the five-game win streak assembled during Orgeron’s short term. Sarkisian says he “loves“ the defensive front seven, keyed by Williams and Antwaun Woods, himself dealing with an elbow problem. Behind them is a second-team All-Pac-12 linebacker, Hayes Pullard.

On offense, Sarkisian wants a combination of the traditional USC pro style and the speedy tempo that he implemented his last year at Washington.

Quarterback Cody Kessler isn’t considered among the elite of the Pac-12, but he had 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season, and it’s worth noting that seven conference teams threw more picks than USC’s nine.

Sarkisian recruited Kessler for Washington but struck out.

Sark says Kessler is “ultra-competitive with extremely quick hands, which is critical for the quarterback in this offense.”

Backs Buck Allen and Tre Madden combined for 1,488 yards in 2013. Referencing Chris Polk and Bishop Sankey at Washington, Sarkisian says, “I believe in running the football. In my five years as a head coach, we had a 1,000-yard rusher every year.”

Rushing was a staple of the USC program of old. But then, so was excellence.

Says Sarkisian, “What surprised me is, for a program on sanctions the amount of time they were on, to raise $120 million for a brand new football facility and redo Heritage Hall, I think it says something about the power of SC.”

He’s about to find out for himself. Again.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or

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