As for the program and the team itself, things are entering a most interesting period. For the first time since the end of the 2001 season, SC will start a season coming off a loss in a bowl game. To refresh some memories, USC lost the Las Vegas Bowl to the Utah Utes in 2001, and then won successive bowl games against Iowa, Michigan, and Oklahoma, before losing a heartbreaker to the Texas Longhorns in January's Rose Bowl for the national championship. Many of the returning starters for next year's squad have little, if any experience with losing football games while playing for Coach Carroll and The University of Southern California. Thus, it seems reasonable to ask a few questions. First, how will the kids react? Will the loss remind the guys just how hard they have to work to remain at the top? Will there be less pressure since the infamous winning streak has come to an end? Will the team, consisting of players and staff alike, be more focused and hungrier than ever? Will the returning veterans and new kids on the block mesh into a unit that is every bit as dedicated to winning and to becoming the best of the best as their immediate predecessors? All of these questions, as well as many more, will need to be answered in the upcoming months and seasons. Having been around during prior years of dominance in the 60's and 70's, I can say that nothing is a given. Although Pete Carroll certainly seems to have the talent and staff to keep USC in the upper echelon of college football, similar success in the past did not always persist. The winning streak under Pete's tutelage was the longest in USC history, but national championships in 1972, 1974, and 1978, along with a top five ranking in 1979, were also great accomplishments that were difficult to maintain or to duplicate. I will say this. If anyone around has the chance to lead a team to continued success, it has to be Pete Carroll.
Anyone who follows the Trojans realizes that the ranks were depleted this spring. Whether it was due to injuries, poor decisions on the part of certain individuals, poor academic performance or conflicts with some players' current classes, the number of available players for spring ball seemed to be at an all time low. The coach himself stated that the ranks were depleted and for that reason, the much anticipated Huddle might not have been as meaningful as many might have hoped. As a fan, one can't help but be a bit disappointed about the recurrent academic theme that made its annual spring appearance. (One can only imagine how upset and frustrated the coaches themselves might be!) How many players were held out of a significant number of practices due to classroom type problems? It has been well documented that at various times, guys like Matt Spanos, Chauncey Washington, Gerald Washington, Fili Moala, and Sedrick Ellis were out to concentrate on academic issues. Of course, academics are supposed to be the primary reason a person is in college, but it would be nice to go through a spring session without such a plethora of kids who are apparently having some type of issue. And then there is the nasty, almost unbelievable injury bug. Injuries and rehabilitation are part of the sport, but to my way of thinking, the situation at SC this spring was unprecedented. How hard is it to imagine that not one single scholarship tailback was available for spring? At one time, it looked like USC might have Hershel Dennis, Chauncey Washington, Desmond Reed and Michael Coleman for spring ball. As it ended up, Chauncey is hitting the books and Hershel was out with a hamstring and then, in an almost surreal manner, he tragically tore his knee ligaments once again when he returned to the field. Desmond Reed is unavailable and still rehabilitating a disastrous injury suffered against the Irish and Michael Coleman is still recovering from hip surgery. I have been around a long time, but I have never seen anything even remotely like that. To add insult to injury, John David Booty, a kid who has patiently waited his turn to be the MAN at USC, injured his back and missed virtually the entire spring. All three guys listed on the depth chart at the SAM linebacker position, Dallas Sartz, Brian Cushing and Thomas Williams, missed all or most of the spring. Averil Spicer, Lawrence Miles, Jeff Schweiger, Lawrence Jackson, Travis Tofi and Fili Moala are amongst the defensive linemen to miss parts or the majority of the spring, while Travis Draper, Drew Radovich,Thomas Herring and Jeff Byers are oliners to miss parts or all of the spring. The defensive backfield also suffered injuries with guys like Will Harris, Josh Pinkard, and Terrell Thomas missing parts or most of the spring. I can't recall a spring with so many guys being out for one reason or another.
Despite the injuries and despite having a depleted roster available, many positives seem to have surfaced this spring. First, Mark Sanchez got major minutes to run the team and to develop. Whether or not Mark can overtake John David Booty in the fall for the starting position remains to be seen. From all reports, Sanchez has developed very nicely, and he has a very strong arm. Pete himself has said that Mark is ahead of where Matt Leinart was when he had to take over the starting quarterback position. The way this is playing out is somewhat ironic. Last spring, Matt Leinart was out, John David Booty ran the team and Matt came back to be the starter for the 2005 season. This spring, JD Booty was out, Mark Sanchez was the man at quarterback and John David is slated to run the team during the 2006 season. However, should Booty falter or should he not regain his total health following his back surgery, the snaps Sanchez got this spring against a fast, talented and spirited defense could prove to be the difference between a monster season and one that leaves fans very disappointed.
One can't help but feel optimistic about the offensive line going into next season. How many teams in America could say that after losing three guys from one of the most talented olines to have played at USC in recent years. I think most people felt that Winston Justice would leave after last year, along with Deuce Lutui. I am not so sure that losing Fred Matua was anticipated. Yet, despite those losses, it looks like SC will once again have a dominating oline. There are actually some rumors circulating that Coach Ruel feels that with some hard work, next year's unit could be every bit the equal (or even better?) to the group that played in the Rose Bowl. And despite the oft stated concerns about lack of depth on the oline due to relatively light recruiting at that spot as of late, things still appear to be on schedule to develop nicely. Of course, for the line to excel, several things have to come together. Byers has to be healthy, Spanos has to be ok academically, Brown and Howell have to continue to develop, and Radovich and Draper have to come back from their injuries and be ready to compete. I also wonder how big Howell will be by the start of next season. He has been named as Baker's backup at the all important left tackle position. That is quite an accomplishment for a redshirt freshman. I am just wondering if he is really the guy who will get the call should Baker miss any significant time? Howell seems to be very talented, but one might wonder is he is big enough to take over? I guess only time will tell.
Perhaps the biggest single surprise of the spring was the emergence of Ryan Powdrell. After moving from linebacker to fullback this spring, he has shown amazing offensive skills. With the total lack of available tailbacks, Ryan got a shot at carrying the rock and he showed his stuff. The guy is huge, has reasonable speed and is a load to bring down. Yes, he did show a tendency to put the ball on the ground and we all know just how much Pete "loves" that. However, considering that he is new to this spot, one has to imagine that he can overcome that problem. As to whether nor not he will be a tailback or fullback in the fall, one thing is for certain. This is a guy who can be a real weapon and I fully expect him to be an integral part of the offense. Prior to his departure to emphasize academics, Gerald Washington was also a most pleasant surprise. He is evidently somewhat raw, but his size, athleticism and speed are undeniable. Assuming his classroom situation is in order, this is yet another amazing athlete who should contribute in a big way. Among other players who have taken positive steps forward, one would include Rey Maualuga, Kaluka Maiva and Kyle Moore. All three of these guys have taken their game to the next level and it will be hard indeed to keep these players off the field. Patrick Turner is another of last year's blue chip recruits who seems to have really stepped it up. By all accounts, Patrick made quite a statement this spring and it is going to be hard to find any trio of receivers in college football who can match Jarrett, Smith and Turner. My strong hunch is that there is not a team in America that can match the Trojans' group. Of course, it will be all the more obvious if the next quarterback excels at actually getting the ball to them. Two final guys that I certainly want to mention are Chris Barrett and Walker Lee Ashley. Over the past few years, I have waited to see if Chris would live up to his huge potential. Up till now, injuries and perhaps differences with Coach O have hampered Mr. Barrett. It finally looks like Chris is ready to contribute in a big way. If he can learn to play a bit lower, he could become a tremendous DT since he is very fast, quick and tremendously athletic. As for Ashley, I can say that although it took him a while to get here, it now looks like he might be able to contribute sooner than later on the defensive line. There had been talk about moving him over to the offense, but he has improved during the spring, and he might have a very nice future as a member of the Trojan defensive line. It goes without saying that for anyone to succeed at that position, he will have to go at full speed and produce to reach his potential and to satisfy new, energetic defensive line coach and defensive coordinator, Nick Holt.
Now that Spring ball is ending, it seems natural that the topic of next season comes to mind. Ironically, next season is scheduled to start in a fashion that is incredibly similar to the season following Carson Palmer's departure. USC is once again going to replace another Heisman winning quarterback with a guy who has never started a game for the Trojans. The game will be played in a hot, humid, hostile environment against an SEC opponent that lost to USC at the Coliseum the year before. I had the opportunity to speak to an Arkansas guy last weekend while I was in Memphis. He was very cordial and showed the Trojans a great deal of respect. However, he was quick to point out that the Hogs remember the onslaught they were subjected to in Los Angeles and he told me that they are much improved on both sides of the line. Although the Arkansas Razorbacks will not be rated as highly as the Auburn Tigers were when SC visited Jordan Hare Stadium 3 years ago, the environments and situations will have some similarities. In addition to breaking in a new quarterback, USC will be starting a relatively inexperienced tailback. Ironically, Chauncey Washington did play a very good game against Auburn and wouldn't it be nice if he picked up where he left off against another SEC team? It is also likely that at least one and maybe up to three or more talented freshmen tailbacks will get some carries in the upcoming game.(Does that bring back any memories?) USC's defensive front four might not be quite as famous as its predecessor, but the linebacking unit that SC will bring to Fayetteville might be as talented as any group I can recall. The defensive backfield is talented and deep. For all the various questions about why Pete can't seem to land that outstanding shutdown corner, I honestly believe that this group of corners will prove to be as deep and talented as any Pete has had while at USC. Spring ball did wonders for the development of kids like Kevin Thomas and Carey Harris and it showed once again that it is vital to recruit talented and dedicated student athletes.
With all the highly touted talent on its way to the practice field come August, I honestly like USC's chances to excel in 2006. The team should have the right balance of returning talent and new stars to accomplish what has to be done. For the first time in a while, USC should have enough highly sought and talented recruits to have talent everywhere, including the very important special teams. Up to this point, that has not been a Trojan strongpoint. Of course, one never knows about the fickle kicking game, and next season is still a bit of a question mark in that regard. It does look like the numbers will be favorable enough to allow very talented kids to contribute on special teams. If all the various academic issues are handled, USC is slated to bring in some of the fastest, quickest and most talented kids in the entire country and as the saying goes, speed kills. Some have said that the USC offense did not have the real burner over the past couple of years at receiver. (I am not sure what they considered Reggie Bush when he lined up wide, but that is another issue!). If Patterson and Holland are both there in the fall-and I am not implying they won't be, that issue will be over. Of course there still has to be more push from the defensive line. We will also get to see if USC will play an unorthodox 4-3 defense at various times. Much has been made of the fact that Pete has always run a 4-3 and he is not about to change. However, he also has a history of playing his best guys. Therefore, let's just say we can call the defense anything, but it would not surprise me one bit to see four or even five linebackers on the field at different times, and who cares what it is called, so long as it leads to a dominating defense. My guess is that USC will have just that—a dominating defense and that will be a key to the beginning of the next championship quest. The Oline will be incredibly important as always, but there is an old saying and that is that defense wins championships. Any time a team scores 38 points and loses, I think that team can relate to the urgency of having a defense that can close the door and turn out the lights. I have a feeling that is just what USC will put on the field in 2006.