The same old theme has returned in 2007. This is the best football team USC has had during the seven-year Pete Carroll era. The Trojans return 17 starters from last year's team that blew out Michigan, 32-18, in the Rose Bowl. Notre Dame will get to see for themselves if its true when they host the Trojans on October 20th.
"We'll wait to see how they come together, but it's the most talented roster he has entered a season with," said Garry Paskwietz, the publisher of WeAreSC.com. That's safe to say which is kind of scary.
"It doesn't have the star power when Matt was a senior and Reggie was a junior," Paskwietz continued. "There was an electric atmosphere around the team at all times. Those guys were rock stars. That's not the case this year, but there are more talented players."
While there are no rock star personalities like Leinart and Bush lacing them up for the Trojans this season, there is certainly a lot of guys that could earn All-American status. Senior quarterback John David Booty could become USC's next Heisman Trophy winner.
It's obviously a good thing when Carroll hears best team ever considering the fact that he's won two National Championships since taking over the program. Normally Carroll deflects that attention, but even this year he has given in to the fact that as far as talent goes, this team is pretty darn good. Heck, there are 10 running backs on the roster that could start at 100 other Division I schools.
"He has said that we have as much talent top to bottom as anybody we've walked into a season with, but he is not boasting," Paskwietz said. "He does a great job of keeping things on course."
Which in Carroll's eyes is to win the Pac 10 conference and earn an automatic selection to a Bowl Championship Series game. Then there is the unspoken goal of National Championship which Carroll chooses not to get caught up in, since it's a situation he can't control.
"He always says you can win the Pac Ten conference and not get invited to the National Championship game," Paskwietz stated.
If the Trojans run the table this season, Carroll won't have to worry about that.
Booty had Mark Sanchez breathing down his neck last season for the quarterback job. But after completing over 60 percent of his passes for 3,347 yards and 29 touchdowns, it's Booty's job and Booty's team. The highly touted Sanchez will have to wait at least one more season.
Booty, who only threw nine interceptions last season, looked even more impressive this spring and summer.
"You saw a very precise quarterback," Paskwietz said. "He had a couple practices where it was 13-for-15, 17-for-19, and you are going good grief, look at this guy. The number one thing I've noticed about him is the way he grew as a leader. He was not that way when he came in here. He was borderline shy. This off-season, you really saw him take on that persona as the guy."
Who will be the guy, the featured runner out of the backfield?
"That's the $64,000 question," Paskwietz said with a laugh. "I don't know who is going to emerge. There is 10 good guys in that group"
Paskwietz pointed towards seniors Chauncey Washington and Herschel Dennis, and sophomore C.J. Gable as the three main candidates. Washington (6-1, 220) led the team in rushing last season with 744 yards and nine touchdowns. Gable (6-1, 195) battled a groin injury all summer. Last season he was third on the team in rushing with 434 yards rushing and four touchdowns. Dennis (5-11, 200) was granted a sixth year by the NCAA after missing the past two seasons with knee injuries. At one point his freshman year, he was No. 1 on the depth chart ahead of Bush and LenDale White, and according to Paskwietz, looked great during the spring.
"Herschel is probably the be blocker and best receiver," Paskwietz said. "Chauncey is the best power back, and C.J. brings a little bit of everything.
"Some of the guys behind them bring a certain set of skills. "Emmanuel Moody (459 yards, 2 TDs) is your guy with really good moves. Allen Bradford is going to be your power back. Then there is Stafon Johnson, who I think has as much pure running instinct as any of them. Then you have the freshman Joe McKnight, good grief he is terrific. He has been as good as advertised in summer workouts."
When Booty isn't handing the ball off to the talented stable of runners, he will likely be looking for 6-foot-5, 220-pound junior receiver Patrick Turner. Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith have moved on to the league, and Turner is next in line to be the next great USC pass catcher. Jarrett and Smith both caught over 70 balls last year. Turner was fourth on the team with 29 receptions for 272 yards and two touchdowns.
"He has stepped up his role this year in the off-season," Paskwietz said of Turner. "You can't really tell until you put the pads on, but based on what we saw this summer, he looks to go to the next level at wide receiver. He is just a big strong guy that has that aura about him that okay it's my turn."
Vidal Hazelton, a 6-foot-3 junior will likely be the starter on the other side. Other receivers in the mix for playing time are sophomore Travon Patterson (5-10, 175), sophomore Jamere Holland (6-1, 190) and freshman Ronald Johnson (6-1, 190).
Tight end Fred Davis is the team's leading returning receiver with 38 receptions for 352 yards and three touchdowns.
"Fred Davis has really developed into a solid tight end," Paskwietz said. Davis came to USC as a receiver. "Just a steady senior. I expect big things from Fred this year. The guy coming on strong is a sophomore named Anthony McCoy. A (6-5) 260-pounder who can run and catch."
Sophomore Stanley Havili will start at fullback.
When Sam Baker (6-5, 305) decided to turn down the riches of the NFL and return to USC, Booty got reassurance that his blind side will be well protected. The left tackle would've likely been a first round draft choice in the 2007 draft. Jeff Byers (6-4, 285) battled through some injuries during the spring, but will start at left guard. Chilo Rachal (6-5, 315) is back at right guard and senior Drew Radovich (6-5, 305) will start at right tackle. Fifth-year senior Matt Spanos (6-5, 305) is the new center.
"He is one of the strongest guys on the roster," Paskwietz said of Spanos. He has paid his dues and would've been the starter at right tackle last season if he wouldn't of been academically ineligible.
"To me the key is at left guard with Jeff Byers. He's been out for the last two years with injuries. One of those out of sight, out of mind things. He looked great when he was out there during the spring, and if he can stay healthy, the line will be just fine."
There is a whole lot of depth along the line if Carroll needs it. Alatini Malu (6-4, 330) can play both guard or tackle. Nick Howell (6-5, 275) is a nice guard prospect. Zach Heberer (6-5, 300) and Charles Brown (6-6, 290) could find their way into the mix at tackle.
***Defense: "They have so much speed on this defense, when you talk about the most talented team in the Carroll era, the strength of this team is the defense," Paskwietz explained. "It's scary. This defense should be as good as advertised. For a team to score more than 10 or 14 points against these guys, you're really going to have to be doing something."
"I've never seen a better linebacking core at USC heading into a season than this group here," Paskwietz said. "Just a great group and they have real good backups."
The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Rivers (85 tackles, 7.5 TFL) and the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Maualuga (78 tackles, 5 TFL) were the team's top two tacklers last season. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Cushing (57 tackles, 13.5 TFL) has moved back to linebacker after playing a lot of defensive end last fall.
Three of four starters are back along the defensive line led by 6-foot-2, 305-pound All-American nose guard Sedrick Ellis (34 tackles, 8 TFL). Fili Moala (20 tackles, 7 TFL) is back at defensive tackle, and Lawrence Jackson (43 tackles, 11 TFL) returns at defensive end. Competition to start opposite Jackson will be between junior Kyle Moore and freshman Everson Griffen.
"Sed was just an absolute beast in the middle of that line," Paskwietz stated. "Another big name to remember is (junior) Averell Spicer, who will play behind Sed."
In the secondary, USC returns three starters at safety. Kevin Ellison (64 tackles, 6 TFL) will be the strong safety. At free safety it gets interesting. Senior Josh Pinkard was called the best football player on the team by Carroll last season before he got hurt in the season opener. While Pinkard missed the season, Taylor Mays (62 tackles, 3 INTs) stepped in and became a freshman All-American. Pinkard is back and could be moved to cornerback opposite Terrell Thomas (50 tackles, 12 breakups). Also in the mix to start at corner is junior Cary Harris and his classmate Kevin Thomas.
"This is probably the biggest area of concern for USC fans," Paskwietz said.
Greg Woidneck averaged 38.3 yards per punt last season, and is back to handle the same duties.
The incumbent at punt returner is Desmond Reed. A lot of guys are in the mix to return kicks like Gable, McKnight, Johnson and Patterson. Gable averaged 27 yards per return last year.
***Overall: It would be easy for Carroll and his players to say that the USC-Notre Dame game can't be considered a rivalry anymore, the way the Trojans have put it on the Irish recently. But that's not the case. Even with contests against California and UCLA every season, this is still the game circled on the schedule.
"Coach Carroll has too much respect for Notre Dame," Paskwietz said. "One of the guys he became close with when he got the job at USC was (longtime assistant) Marv Goux. Marv really instilled in coach Carroll that this rivalry is it."
With the way USC lost 13-9 to UCLA ending the regular season and all hopes of a National Championship last season, Carroll will have no problems keeping his team focused on Notre Dame or anybody else this fall.