LOS ANGELES (AP) Cody Kessler sees the now-familiar signs again. His Trojans are showing more sharpness in practice, more togetherness off the field and a renewed appreciation for the privilege of playing football at Southern California.
The quarterback and many of his fellow Trojans already learned how to adjust to a coaching change the first three times it happened during the past two seasons.
Kessler expects USC to handle the fourth change and the program’s latest turmoil with the steadiness of experience when the Trojans (3-2, 1-2 Pac-12) attempt to rekindle the spark in their season Saturday night in their annual showdown with No. 14 Notre Dame.
”This team has been through a lot of adversity, and that’s what we do best: Move on,” Kessler said. ”We do a great job getting back to work, getting back to practice. We have an opportunity to do something great this weekend. It’s going to be a crazy game out in South Bend, and we’re excited.”
Interim coach Clay Helton has been unfailingly upbeat and forward-looking this week in the absence of Steve Sarkisian, who was fired Monday after showing up to practice in no condition to work.
”Anytime you have a fresh start and new beginnings, it’s exciting for anybody,” Helton said. ”And plus, it’s rivalry week. It’s Notre Dame. That’s special. It’s SC versus Notre Dame. That’s going to provide a little bit of the juice, and I think these guys want to go out and prove something.”
Helton, Kessler and the Trojans got even more support Thursday during their final practice before their afternoon flight to Indiana: USC greats Keyshawn Johnson, Willie McGinest and Keith Rivers joined about 20 former players who gathered to support the players, with several sharing words in the post-practice huddle.
Helton also allowed a group of students into the normally closed Thursday practice to cheer on the players. Helton said he has received countless messages of support from the program’s greats, including a text from Marcus Allen, one of his childhood idols.
”When he reaches out to you with his support, as well as numerous other players, this is the most humbling experience I’ve had in my lifetime,” said Helton, whose father, Kim, was an assistant coach on Allen’s Los Angeles Raiders teams in the early 1990s. ”For those type of men to reach out is mind-blowing to me. It won’t hit me until probably later on, but I appreciate every one.”
Meanwhile, Kessler insisted he was thinking more about improving his poor play last week than struggling with Sarkisian’s abrupt departure. Kessler and Helton, his former position coach, have a tight bond.
After having four head coaches in 2013, Kessler says the USC upheaval ”doesn’t affect me.”
”I’ve been through pretty much everything that you can possibly think of since I’ve been here,” Kessler said. ”My phone has been ringing and people texting me, saying, `Are you OK? Are you OK?’ I’m fine. I’m great. I’ve been through everything. I’ve learned from it. I’ve been through adversity. I’ve been through this same exact situation, and I know how to handle this. It’s the younger guys that I need to be there for.”
During the Trojans’ weekly Family Dinner on Tuesday night, the players and coaches watched a screening of ESPN’s new documentary on the Trojans’ great teams of the previous decade. The coincidental timing was odd, but the largely complimentary film was a welcome reminder.
”You really see how powerful SC is, and the brand of SC and how special this place is,” Helton said. ”There’s no other place like it in the world.”
Others who have checked in on USC include Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, who hates to watch a league power in upheaval.
”I certainly feel for everyone involved during the season obviously an unusual situation to make a coaching change in the middle of the season,” Scott said Wednesday during the Pac-12 women’s basketball media day in San Francisco. ”When I reached out, it was because I was first and foremost concerned about Steve, someone I’ve gotten to know well over the years from the time I started in the conference. Terrific guy. I really just feel bad for what he’s going through and wish the best for him.”
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley in San Francisco contributed to this report.