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USC Coach in Spotlight

Los Angeles — When Southern California returns to the Coliseum on Thursday night, Ed Orgeron plans to take his usual place in front of the Trojans when they charge down the tunnel and onto their famous field.

“I like doing that,” Orgeron said. “I’ve done that for years here. It’s really an honor to go down the tunnel, a tradition to look up on the wall at all the players that were here. The cleats go click-clack. Everybody is buckled up.”

Orgeron isn’t about to stop enjoying what he loves about college football just because he’s the interim coach at USC (3-2, 0-2 Pac-12) for the next two months. He’s also making sure his players remember what’s special about their sport and their school during what’s been a decidedly unpleasant season so far.

“It feels like a whole new team,” defensive lineman Leonard Williams said. “It feels like we’re coming into a new season. Coach O is trying to make sure everybody is having as much fun as possible.”

Until last week, the Cajun Trojan had a comfortable niche at USC, his unlikely home for 11 of the last 16 years. Orgeron was the top recruiter and defensive line coach for Pete Carroll and Lane Kiffin, excelling in both areas.

Orgeron emerged as something of a cult figure to players and fans who embraced the profound discordance of a barrel-chested Cajun with a sometimes indecipherable accent coaching Hollywood’s favorite football team.

“My first impression, I thought he was kind of crazy, to be honest,” said Williams, an elite athlete lured out of Daytona Beach, Fla., by Orgeron’s recruitment.

“His voice, his tempo, everything is just aggressive. ... But when I first came out here for my official (visit), he took me in like one of his own, and then ever since I’ve been out here, he’s been great.”

Kiffin’s firing propelled Orgeron into the spotlight as a caretaker of a USC tradition that’s taken innumerable hits over the last half-decade. Orgeron didn’t ask for the opportunity, but the former Ole Miss boss is determined not to waste a second chance to run his own program.

And Orgeron doesn’t waste a moment at USC’s practices, which have taken on an adrenalized vibe since Kiffin’s departure. Orgeron is the source, roaming the field in a slightly crouched stance while growling instruction and good-natured abuse at his players.

“He makes sure everybody is out here having fun,” Williams said. “By doing that, people actually want to come out here and compete. All of the practice is up-tempo. It helps out a lot. I love how he chewed the D-line, and it’s great to see the whole team experience what we get to experience. He works people really hard, but at the same time, he treats you good. It’s a family-type relationship.”

Orgeron began changing the Kiffin climate from his first practice in charge during USC’s break in the schedule last week. He started off with the Big Man Drill, a one-on-one competition, and proceeded through a list of activities designed to stoke his players’ competitive fire.

At one point in practice, the Trojans gathered around Orgeron in a yelling, jumping, cheering mass — just like they did regularly during Carroll’s wildly successful tenure.

“I didn’t take my shirt off today,” Orgeron said with a laugh, recalling his motivational methods at Ole Miss a decade ago. “I was in better shape back then.”

For his second practice, Orgeron threw out the playbook and held a Trojan Bowl, with first-teamers coaching the walk-ons and redshirts through a fun-filled scrimmage.

Orgeron allows media members to watch practices again after Kiffin kicked them out this summer. He also turned off most of the music that permeated USC’s practices, preferring a soundtrack of cleats and coaches over hip-hop and house.

Even Orgeron’s quieter assistants are getting into the act, screaming and cajoling with uncommon vigor as the Trojans prepare to make something out of this fractured season.

“We want it edgy on the field, (and) I think it’s contagious,” Orgeron said. “You see guys having fun, and a couple of guys cut loose a little bit. Hopefully we cut loose on Thursday night. That’s when it counts.”

It’s tough to imagine how Orgeron could keep the full-time job, although several Trojans have already spoken up for his candidacy this week.

Orgeron has no interest in looking beyond the next eight weeks. The Trojans will follow him down the tunnel to take on Arizona (3-1, 0-1) with the belief Orgeron can still lead them somewhere great.

“We all want Coach O to stay here,” Williams said. “We just want to play up to his expectations.”