What it may take . . . a freshman to step up

It's getting to have that 2002 feeling here but is there another Mike Williams ready to step up?

There's something very familiar here, it seems. Something that says we've been down this path before. Something that reminds us.

At least for me. There's something here that says it's 2002 all over again . . . in lots of ways.

The good old days. Maybe the most important season in modern USC football history. Not only did they come back, they came back all the way in a hurry -- after two heart-wrenching losses, even.

Came back in a way that said this Pete Carroll guy could coach. Said that by the end of that season that USC probably would have won any four-team playoff had there been one.

Made Troy Polamalu one of the iconic football players of his generation. Made Carson Palmer, the nation's 20th-ranked quarterback going into the season and on no one's radar midway through the year the No. 1 player -- and rightly so -- after the season.

Even before the Orange Bowl. And then it couldn't have been more obvious. That was a team. Sure, they started out No. 18 in the nation and pretty much stayed there until they survived Kyle Boller and Cal in the Coliseum [Ed. Note: an earlier versiion of this story had Aaron Rodgers in this game but he came along two years later] and then whacked Oregon in Eugene to get into the Top 10 in Week 8.

Once that team got going at Oregon, they really weren't able to be stopped -- not by a college defense anyway -- scoring 44 against a 14th-ranked Oregon team, 49 against Stanford, 34 against Arizona State, 52 against 25th-ranked UCLA, 44 against No. 7 Notre Dame and 38 against No. 3 Iowa.

You think that wasn't a team? There were 24 Trojans from that 2002 team that spent some time -- or lots of it -- on NFL rosters. In all, 45 earned at least a check for their troubles at the next level. And 11 went on to first-team All-American honors at some time in their careers -- including Williams, Polamalu and Palmer.

Here's the rest of that impressive All-American lineup: Jacob Rogers, Kenechi Udeze, Tom Malone, Matt Leinart, Shaun Cody, Mike Patterson, Matt Grootegoed and transfer Lofa Tatupu, who was sitting the season out.

But there was one player who made the single biggest difference. And not the seniors we saw that day in July when I was hired to cover USC for the Riverside Press-Enterprise and hustled down to Howard Jones to see what they were going to look like and was lucky enough to catch a players-only session run by Palmer and Polamalu. How bad could this team be, I asked myself.

But there was a time between then and the opener against Auburn when I told people I thought something special was about to happen. Although I might have been all alone in the media with that assessment -- and tried to argue with folks convinced USC wasn't coming back. Too much recent history, they said, too much incompetence and misery.

But in that first Coliseum scrimmage, Mike Williams -- freshman wide receiver Mike Williams -- absolutely dominated -- a man against boys. And still that didn't change things, the naysayers said. USC had been down too long.

Not that Mike was alone. That freshman class had, among others, Darnell Bing, Manuel Wright, Winston Justice, Fred Matua, Tom Malone, Jason Mitchell, Hershel Dennis, Kyle Williams, Dominique Byrd, Dallas Sartz, Justin Wyatt, Chris McFoy, La Juan Ramsey, Oscar Lua and Brandon Hancock.

Scout.com had that bunch No. 12 in the nation coming in and of course they turned out better than that. But it was Mike Williams, and USC's ability to take a freshman and elevate him where and when he was needed, that made all the difference.

That freshman group helped change the character of USC football and return that Trojan team to the top. Competition was back. Those guys wanted to play. Practice was never the same as it had been during the dark years when there weren't enough big-time players and even fewer coaches of that caliber.

And now here we are. With a USC team that might be able to match that one in offensive firepower if everything goes right, even if there will never be another Trojan quarterback with the physical gifts of Carson Palmer. What may decide whether 2002 happens again here -- other than a coaching staff making the big step up as well -- could be how many freshmen step up how far and how fast.

Will it be one? Will there be several? Will it happen just on offense? Or could a rookie defensive player -- or several -- make the move?

Someone will have to. We've changed our mind on this one. The more you look at this roster, what will get one of the arguably more talented teams in the country to that next level will be that special talent we're not expecting even though we know he's there. The one we don't see dominating because no freshman should be seen that way.

The beauty here is that they're not needed everywhere. But with the depth of talent in this class, they may be able to step in at any position of need -- linebacker, secondary, wide receiver, tight end, running back, who knows, maybe even a D-lineman although that's more of a longshot.

But if they do, that would be the difference-maker, we think. Just like it was in 2002.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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