As Pete Carroll enters his fourth season as the Head Coach at USC, the Trojan Family is buzzing with excitement and anticipation. Having been an avid fan many years ago when the Trojans last came off tremendous back to back seasons in 1978 and 1979, this kind of enthusiasm is not entirely new for me. However, there is a HUGE DIFFERENCE. This time around, it is very reasonable to think that perhaps the Trojans are still on a mission to achieve perfection whereas the last time, it turned out that the SC Football program was headed into more than two decades of mediocrity, several coaching changes and the dreaded years of serious probation. For those of us who read these boards who have experienced both periods as well as for the younger fans, we certainly hope that no such decline is in the horizon for the current Trojans. In particular for the younger fans, one can only hope that they get to see yet another period of true Trojan Glory at which time the Football Team is at the pinnacle or at least very close to the top for many years to come.
As this season is about to begin, my guess as to the single biggest question on the minds of the fans is this. Will Mike Williams be with the team in 2004? Will the NCAA do the right thing and allow a humble sounding Mike Williams to play college football again, or will my not so favorite organization stick it to Michael while at the same time hurting the USC Trojans and possibly damaging their own future as well as their relationship, albeit one of the defacto nature, with the NFL. Since I am writing this column before the decision is final, it is not unreasonable to state that only time will tell how this one plays out. All we can do is hope for the best and assume that the coaches are prepared for any eventuality. Of course, Mike is not the only name that has drawn concern amongst the receivers in the off season. It is now well publicized that Whitney Lewis might not make it back this year and the loss of both BMW and WL could loom large indeed. Of course, being the eternal optimist as I am when it comes to SC's skill players, I honestly believe that even with the loss of both these guys, SC's offense will still be a really powerful and explosive unit, IF and only IF, the Offensive Line gels into a competent and hopefully terrific unit. Other questions that come to mind as practice is about include the following. Which of the newcomers are likely to see real playing time and even compete for starting positions? Will the new starting corners be able to get the job done? Is Matt Leinart healthy enough to make it into and through the entire season, or is the elbow on his throwing arm a real cause for concern? What will USC look like now that it appears depth at linebacker is not the concern it has been for the past year. And finally, one might also wonder if USC does, indeed, have the very best of the best defensive lines in College Football?
One would be foolish to assume that USC can be as potent offensively without Mike Williams as with him. Mike is the absolute best receiver I can remember seeing in the entire 37 years I have followed the Trojans. As great as others such as Johnnie Morton, Keyshawn Johsnson and Lynn Swann were while at SC, I don't think anyone matched BMW. So, if he is gone, why do I think the Trojans can still succeed? It's simple. The other guys are not lacking in their own right and Norm Chow is as good as it gets in maximizing the offensive strengths of those on the team. Steve, smooth as silk Smith is phenomenal. I don't think it will take Dwayne Jarrett very long to become a feared receiver, Alex Holmes is back, and so is Dominique Byrd. One also has to love the potential of Chris McFoy who is pretty big on his own, and William Buchanan is pretty tall and very fast as well. Add to that, two guys named Reggie Bush and Desmond Reed and one can see that even without Williams and Lewis, the receiving weapons on this team are not to be underestimated. There are also a few other newcomers, namely Derrick Jones, Fred Davis, and Michael Stuart who could make some real noise from very early in their careers.
To my way of thinking the biggest single area of concern going into this season is the Offensive Line. I think many, if not most serious fans would agree that on paper, this unit looks to have real potential. And of course, the unit will have the task of having to practice against what many consider to be the premier defensive line unit in America. With big guys like Lutui, Malu, hopefully John Drake, and Sam Baker among others, SC could potentially field one of the biggest Offensive Lines in school history. Of course, we all know that size without speed is not all that. Coach Davis likes to say "mass kicks ass" but that only works if the guys can get to the target before it is gone. Coach Carroll and Chow love to emphasize speed. This unit, which has lost Justice, Rogers, VanDermade and Katnk from last year's stellar group, is long on potential, talent, size and hopefully speed. However, Olines need time to gel and that should not be forgotten. I have been told point blank that at times during the spring, the lack of familiarity was plainly visible and many missed assignments were noted. To my way of thinking some of the key points to watch will be the following. Will Byers be another true phenom who is so good that he plays from very early on and never gives up his spot? Will Lutui prove to be another freakish sort of guy who carries an enormous amount of weight, yet moves well enough to get the job done very well? And finally, will John Drake be available and healthy? It never hurts to have an experienced 340 pounder (or somewhere in that vicinity?) on the Oline who is a real roadgrinder.
By all acounts, Matt Leinart has been working on his speed and agility and he is ready to have a Heisman type of campaign. Assuming his arm is healthy and ready to go, all Matt needs now is good blocking and guys who can catch. He surprised me last year on his way to leading the Trojans to the National Championship. Of course, one must always look at who is behind Matt. The backup is only one snap away from having to run the show and no backup has much experience while at SC, though Brandon Hance has played major minutes while at Purdue. For some reason, I am simply not worried about the quarterback position at USC. After seeing what happened last year, I am totally convinced that should Matt go down, one of the other kids will be more than up to the task and with Norm Chow leading the offense, either John David Booty, Brandon Hance , Billy Hart or even Matt Cassell will get the job done if called into action. One should remember that the running back corps at SC is pretty deep with as fine a trio as I can remember in a long time. Hershel Dennis, Lendale White and Reggie Bush form quite a group. With all the hoopla surrounding Reggie and his amazing speed and moves, I can't help but think that White's accomplishments have been somewhat understated. That kid is one major stud and if given the opportunity, he is as likely as anyone to become the next great SC tailback. Of course, that is perhaps an overused phrase at this time, but nonetheless, he is really good. Of course, there is still Hershel Dennis and he is no slouch either. At fullback, the loss of Brandon Hancock is significant, but I can't help but like David Kirtman. It seems like all he ever does is catch the ball, make some fine blocks and he also runs rather well. Not to take anything away from anyone else, but I get the feeling that Kirtman is an underrated football player. Of course, there are also rumors about seeing Dominique Byrd line up as a fullback at times and that might also be very interesting. All told, one just has to love the outlook for the entire offensive backfield.
One can't help but gasp when it comes to the SC Defense. Coach Orgeron has one tough group and across the Dline, if there is a quicker, more explosive and better unit in this country, I haven't seen it yet and that is no lie. A potential starting unit of Rucker, Patterson, Manuel Wright and Shaun Cody is nothing to sneeze at. With kids like Jeff Schweiger. Lawrence Jackson, LaJuan Ramsey, Sedric Ellis, Ryan Watson, Chris Barrett and maybe Thomas Herring and Fili Moala among others, the new Oline is going to be challenged in a big way by a group that combines speed, strength and agility. It is just hard to run on this group and I have no doubt that Schweiger is the real deal. Some kids just have it and after watching him play, he is just such a guy. The linebackers are also an intriguing unit. Perhaps the starters are Matt G, Lofa Tatupu and Dallas Sartz. But hang on to your hats folks. Just how long does that group, even if healthy, hold off the likes of Thomas Williams, an apparently healthy Oscar Lua, Ryan Powdrell and the already much talked about Keith Rivers. From all accounts, Rivers has already established himself as a larger version of Reggie Bush and that is saying a great deal. Not only does SC finally have health at linebacker, the depth looks impressive. And finally, one has to wonder about the ever important dbacks. If there is one unit that might rival the Oline in terms of influencing the upcoming season, that's the one. Few seem to be all that concerned with safety. Darnell Bing is on the way to bigger and better things, and Leach is a proven commodity. The new buzz seems to be about the other giant safety that SC recruited out of the JC Ranks. Scott Ware certainly passes the look test and if he lives up to expectations, I still think we will see some 5 and 6 db sets where either Ware or Bing comes up much as Darnell did against Notre Dame last year and one of those guys is a safety in name only on some plays. Of course, that leaves the vitally important corner position in particular because of Coach Carroll many blitz schemes that put the corners out on an island. Despite the loss of Almond and Poole, I think SC's corners will be the surprise of the defense. Nunn is very fast and I simply think Wyatt is a great athlete who has some of the best football speed on the team. That guy can close and he flies. With Terrell Thomas getting great reviews, Eric Wright having big potential , John Walker being ready to contribute and Kevin Arbet getting another shot at finishing out his career, I am not nearly as concerned about this unit as one might otherwise predict considering the guys lost from last season.
When it comes to special teams, USC has as fine a punter as there is in America. He is a proven commodity and that is that. A healthy Tom Malone is probably worth a win or two just by playing the game of field position that he usually gives the Trojans. This All American is just great. At placekicker, Ryan Killeen has missed a couple of big kicks, but numbers don't lie and he had very respectable percentages last year. In fairness to him or any placekicker, I hate to ever have to depend on a kicker to win a game, but the truth is that 19 of 24 field goals is impressive and 65 of 67 PAT's is also pretty darn good. With guys like Reggie Bush, Desmond Reed, Justin Wyatt, Kevin Arbet, and dependable Greg Carlson, the kickoff returns and punt returns should also be in very capable hands. And who knows, some other speedster such as a Derrick Jones might end up getting a look and making an impression. Special teams should be a real strength on this team.
Now it finally comes to the coaching. There might be a better college unit somewhere, but I have a feeling that nobody is going to find it. This group seems to have it all. We have the best Offensive Coordinator around and his name is Norm Chow. I promised myself I would take three full years to decide. I did and I did. It is not a coincidence that last year's offense was just about unstoppable, and that was with a rookie quarterback and a bunch of young runners. SC has a terrific blend of young talent such as Lane Kiffin and Rocky Seto, mixed in with cagey, terrific veterans such as Ed Orgeron and Tim Davis, a duo that forms as fine a combo on the D and Olines that one could want. SC has also brought in a couple of guys from the pros such as Todd McNair and Carl Smith and that has to impress the kids. No way a kid can look these guys in the eye and say they don't know what it takes to get to the next level. And of course, USC has THE MAN. Head Coach Pete Carroll has lead the amazing comeback of the program and he has lead the Trojans to back to back major bowl wins in his last two years. Leading the team to the National Championship in only his third year, Pete has become one of the greats in a very short period of time. I have been saying it since his very first press conference. This guy is a natural for the college game, and he and USC are a perfect fit. Although I hardly think it will be the cakewalk that some seem to think due to a relatively friendly schedule, I do think the Trojans could make a run for major honors this season. However, everyone will be gunning for SC, even more than usual, and it sure could not hurt our chances if we catch a break here and there--like getting Mike Williams back for another year. Any way one looks at it, Thank Heavens it's just about Football Time again. For some of us, it has simply been too long.