Is there are position battle across the country that will be watched more closely than this? At stake is the starting position as quarterback for the USC Trojans, a spot which has become as glamorous as any in college football and which has produced four All-American performances in a row as well as a pair of Heisman Trophies. John David Booty will enter spring as the starter by virtue of the fact that he has been in the system for three years and served as the primary back-up last season to Matt Leinart. John David is ready to run this team as he heads into his junior year and he has a tremendous understanding of the offense right now, traits which will go a long way in the eyes of the coaching staff. He's also got skills as a thrower but we haven't really had a chance to see what he can do as the full-time guy yet. He will be given every opportunity to change that this year. Providing the competition will be redshirt freshman Mark Sanchez and this is no ordinary youngster looking for some token practice reps. It says something about Sanchez's talent that he is even being mentioned as a competitor to Booty because John David is good enough to have been projected as a first round draft pick in the 2007 NFL draft if he decides to come out early. Sanchez is a dynamic presence on the field and that is where his primary edge comes over Booty. While John David is solid and technical, Sanchez has a flair for the big play and leadership abilities which simply cannot be taught. On top of that Mark has a cannon for an arm to go along with the belief that he is ready to lead this team right now. Three years ago Trojan fans were treated to a terrific back and forth spring ball competition between Matt Leinart and Matt Cassel and this year should be no different as Booty and Sanchez should battle every bit as hard during spring ball.
The reports coming from off-season training workouts indicate that junior Fred Davis is turning heads as he bids to become the new starter at tight end with the departure of Dominique Byrd. Even Shaun Cody noted recently that Davis "is a monster" after seeing Fred workout in the Trojan weight room. Fred made a lot of progress last year and he showed that he can not only be a good blocker but he can be very tough to bring down with the ball in his hands. There are other talented players at this spot though and Fred will have to fight them off in spring. Dale Thompson is a junior who has a reputation as a terrific blocker while Jimmy Miller is a sophomore who is extremely athletic and Jimmy will look to be more of a receiver than Dale. If healthy, Nick Vanderboom provides a nice option as a former walk-on who can get the job done. The newcomer to the group is Gerald Washington, a physically mature and gifted athlete who runs well. Gerald doesn't have a lot of football experience so he will likely spend most of the spring and summer getting used to being part of the Trojan program but he is the kind of guy who can turn into a real weapon if he develops properly.
There are three open spots on the offensive line as we head into spring although all three spots have pretty clear favorites for who will leave spring ball as the starter. At the left guard position, Jeff Byers was scheduled to be the starter a year ago before a hip injury that required two surgeries but he is back now and he seems to be in great shape. For a guy who was touted as the top recruit in the nation two years ago Byers has not seen the field much so far in his Trojan career so you know he is anxious to get out there and show what he can do. Jeff has also taken snaps in workouts to prepare for the role of back-up center. Drew Radovich will be the primary competition to Byers when healthy but Drew is still coming back from hip surgery of his own and it's unclear how much he will be able to go in spring. Look for Tiny Malu to see action as a reserve at the guard spots. The starter at right guard will be Chilo Rachal and there is a lot of excitement within the Trojan program to see this young man in action. Chilo is the prototype "road-grader" offensive lineman who has a powerful upper body with the ability to dominate opponents. It would be a big surprise if anybody is able to knock Chilo out of that spot. At right tackle, Kyle Williams seems finally to be in a place where he should be able to secure a full-time starting position. Kyle is a fifth year senior who has waited his turn and he even alternated quarters with Deuce Lutui at the position during the 2004 national championship season. He could end up getting pushed by talented redshirt freshman Charles Brown, a newcomer to the line who only moved from tight end last fall but who has a bright future. Williams is so experienced though that it stands to reason he will hold off Brown and spend the 2006 season as the starter.
There are two open spots on the d-line but the projected starters aren't nearly as easy to figure out on the d-line as they are on the o-line. At defensive tackle, Fili Moala will get first shot at the starting role after backing up LaJuan Ramsey last season and Fili sure looks good in off-season workouts. He's got such good size and strength. Fili could get a big test, however, from newcomer Walker Ashley who has finally arrived on the USC campus after having to sit out last season due to academic issues. Walker showed up looking huge and he's a nice block of clay for Chris Carlisle to mold into a big-time football player. A wildcard at that spot could be Averell Spicer, who is penciled in as the back-up to Sed Ellis at NG but who is talented enough that the coaches could end up moving him around to find a spot for more playing time. On the outside, the departure of Frostee Rucker means that Kyle Moore and Jeff Schweiger could have a nice battle for the starting spot. Schweiger showed flashes of outstanding potential as a freshman but last year he didn't seem to have much of an impact as he never really adjusted to a new position coach. Now that we have Coach Holt, who is similar in intense style to Orgeron, we could see the difference in Jeff as he seems to respond to that kind of coaching. Moore is simply a tall, athletic man who seems destined to be an elite player. A couple others who could enter into that mix would be Rashaad Goodrum or Alex Morrow although this seems to be a two man race for the starting job.
The MLB competition could join the QB battle as the two most exciting positions to watch during spring. At middle linebacker, you have a returning starter in Oscar Lua who quarterbacked a young defense that was hurt by injuries yet all he did was lead the team in tackles during a 12-1 season. Oscar had a couple signature hits during the year (Arizona State and Arkansas come to mind) and he didn't really do anything to make you think that he should lose his job. However, there is a guy behind him named Rey Maualuga and you don't have to be Pete Carroll to see that Rey has all the potential in the world to be an impact player. They are both physical guys yet Rey has the speed that Oscar will never reclaim after a pair of knee surgeries early in his career. Oscar has the knowledge of a veteran though so it remains to be seen how ready Rey is to be the leader of the defense. Just in case it wasn't enough to have two talented guys going for the position, we will also see Luthur Brown get a chance to show what he can do after sitting out the fall with back problems. Don't let this be a case of "out of sight, out of mind" with Luthur because he wasn't around in the fall, he can flat out play.
Note – the safety spots will also be looking for a pair of new starters but those competitions likely won't be settled until the fall due to injuries and lack of availability in the spring.