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August 28, 2006

2006 Season Preview

Starting Over: After Falling Just Short of History, a New Group of Trojans Harbors Its Own Title Dreams.

19 seconds. That's all that separated the 2005 USC Trojans from a third consecutive national championship. Well, that and one man named Vince Young. Now, with the last two Heisman Trophy winners playing in the NFL, many think Pete Carroll's 2006 USC football team is due to suffer a bit of a letdown. However, that group doesn't include Carroll or a single member of the Trojan football program.

Perhaps you find it hard to think back to the late evening of Jan. 4, 2006. I know I do. There are so many little mistakes - and such a stellar performance by a truly worthy opponent - that could simply drive any Trojan absolutely crazy. However, understanding what this USC program is about under sixth-year Head Coach Pete Carroll (54-10, 35-5 in the Pac-10) begins in the hours and days following Texas' 41-38 victory in a Rose Bowl for the ages.
The always-forward looking Carroll grabbed this program's chin off of its chest in that Pasadena locker room - and refused to let it droop again during the off-season. No amount of graduating seniors or underclassmen consumed by NFL dreams was going to stop him. Though the Trojans suffered through a dark spring - a number of players undergoing surgery in late winter and sitting out spring practice; a back injury sidelining new starting quarterback John David Booty for 99 percent of spring drills; and the ugly week featuring Reggie Bush's parents, Mark Sanchez's nightlife and Dwayne Jarrett's living situation - Carroll would not be sidetracked.

Though the Trojans return just 10 starters plus placekicker Mario Danelo … and though USC is missing Bush, Matt Leinart, LenDale White and a slew of other NFL draftees from the team that sported a 37-2 mark during the past three seasons … and though teams like California and Arizona State appear to be on the verge of taking USC off its Pac-10 pedestal, who's going to bet against Carroll and his latest group of new guys? After all, this USC program saw losses on a similar scale preceding the 2003 season - Heisman Trophy winning QB Carson Palmer, All-American safety Troy Polamalu and a set of experienced, quality running backs all wrapped up their eligibility on Jan. 2, 2003, with an Orange Bowl whipping of Iowa that capped an 11-2 season. What did that 2003 regular season bring? Just a new backfield, a better, healthier defense and a national championship.

So forgive Carroll and the rest of us who have been around his version of USC football history if we are all confident that these new Trojans can step up and challenge again - not only for a fifth straight Pac-10 crown, but also for a third national title in four years. The Trojans' 2006 campaign begins next weekend - on Saturday, Sept. 2, with a 5:45 p.m. (PDT) kickoff at Arkansas in Fayetteville (ESPN).

Certainly, it's a kickoff to another football season, but it also kicks off another fall that has become a way of life for Trojan fans. The sight of Traveler, the sounds of the Spirit of Troy, and visions of long shadows slowly enveloping the Coliseum field as the fall wears on are just a few of the things that give all Trojan fans goosebumps just by thinking of them. Now, the return of vintage era USC dominance and an infectious excitement and attitude just add to those long-shadowed fall afternoons we've loved for so long - even in the down times. It's also brought record crowds to watch the Trojans - USC has broken the school and Pac-10 attendance records each of the past three seasons, and the 2006 home schedule is already sold out.

Those troubled feelings of doubt and a fear of the worst that seemed to haunt the Trojan program prior to the 2001 season now seem so tough to recall. The downward spiral, which bottomed out six years ago, has been replaced with drubbings of rivals, major bowl victories, Heisman Trophies, All-American performances, first-round NFL draft picks and, most wonderfully, championships.

Media scrutiny of the program has also returned, and again, the 2006 off-season had its share of up-and-down moments at Troy. Scandals involving Bush's parents' housing situation, freshman quarterback Sanchez's arrest on suspicion of sexual assault and Jarrett's (short-lived) NCAA suspension for sharing an apartment with Leinart that was subsidized by the quarterback's father all drew days of front-page coverage. Of course, the lack of movement in the Bush saga, the dropping of charges against Sanchez and Jarrett's recent reinstatement were all greeted by much smaller headlines inside the sports section rather than splashed across the front. However, compared to the 2005 off-season, USC's leadership stayed much intact, with few coaching transitions to speak of after last year's huge transition. And with player attendance at summer workouts maxing out, the drive to return to college football's summit is evident among the players.

What's in store for 2006? Unlike the past two seasons, the answer on offense is, "Who really knows?" An all-new backfield does have one of the nation's best offensive lines to operate behind, and likely the nation's best receiving corps to get the ball downfield. The depth that comes from top recruiting classes should pay off most of all on a defense that was destroyed by injuries in 2005. USC has seven linebackers that would be likely starters at any other school in the Pac-10. The defensive front boasts a pair of All-America candidates and an untested but fast and hard-hitting secondary has wasted no time showing off its wares in summer camp. They say defense wins championships - and by the end of what should be a 2006 schedule that provides the Trojans with plenty of big tests, the USC defense may be considered the best in the nation.

Many of us cannot wait to get down to campus on Sept. 16 for the home opener against Nebraska to enjoy another glorious late summer evening in the Coliseum. With that in mind, let's take a look at what you might expect in 2006.

The Offense

One could say that the debut season at the helm of the USC offense for sixth-year assistant Lane Kiffin (offensive coordinator/recruiting coordinator) and Steve Sarkisian (assistant head coach/quarterbacks coach), who returned to USC after a year with the Oakland Raiders, was a success. The Trojan offense ranked in the nation's top six in every major statistical category, rolling up just less than 580 yards and 50 points per game, and set five Pac-10 season team offensive records.

However, most believe that Kiffin and Sarkisian are entering their true "prove-it" year in 2006. After all, the duo inherited an offense that featured the returning Heisman Trophy winner (Leinart), the next Heisman Trophy winner (Bush) and USC's eventual all-time leading touchdown scorer (White). In 2006, however, those leaders are gone - along with three key offensive linemen and star tight end Dominique Byrd. Make no mistake, this is the test Kiffin and Sarkisian have been preparing for since Norm Chow's departure from the program in early 2005.

Leading the way will be Booty, the redshirt junior quarterback who graduated high school a year early to enter USC in the summer of 2003 to compete with Leinart and Matt Cassell to replace Palmer. Booty's experience in the program has many saying that he's better prepared today to take over for Leinart than the 2004 Heisman winner was to take Palmer's place in 2003.
Booty appeared in 10 games as Leinart's back-up a season ago. He was penciled in as the starter heading into fall camp, even though he missed all but one day of spring practice after suffering a back injury that required surgery. During preseason camp, Booty has struggled at times - as has the entire offense against USC's loaded, attacking defense - but has looked better and better as the season closed in.

Though redshirt freshman Mark Sanchez had an entire spring practice to impress the coaching staff - and he did, with both his arm strength and on-field demeanor - he never really challenged Booty for the starting position. USC coaches believe Booty's experience in the offense will be crucial early in the season with the rest of the backfield and parts of the offensive line in transition. Junior Michael McDonald is the third-stringer, while incoming freshman Garrett Green was moved to safety midway through camp.

After going through injury and eligibility issues for the first three years of his college career, redshirt junior running back Chauncey Washington figured to start the season at tailback. However, the much-touted Washington has been hampered by a hamstring injury through much of camp. Thanks to that injury, senior Hershel Dennis' season-ending knee injury, sophomore Michael Coleman's ongoing recovery from hip surgery and junior Desmond Reed being eased back into duty after last season's horrid knee injury suffered in the Notre Dame game, it appears the Trojans' treasure trove of freshman rushers will grab the spotlight in game No. 1.

And no one can say the foursome isn't ready. SoCal products C.J. Gable, Allen Bradford (who switched from safety during camp) and Stafon Johnson, as well as Texan Emmanuel Moody, have taken turns shining on the practice field and in team scrimmages this month. While the roles of the running backs are unlikely to be as clearly delineated as they were during the Bush-White era, coaches and experts seem to think that if USC falls into another "Thunder & Lightning" moniker from the press this season, it might be Gable and Bradford taking the titles. However, discounting Johnson and Moody in any way is not a good move. Any of these four could step into a starring role - whoever the stars become, it should be interesting to find out.

The loss of senior Brandon Hancock to a knee injury just over a week ago means USC's fullback crew is pretty green as well. Converted linebacker Ryan Powdrell, a senior, has looked strong since moving to offense in spring and will start. Junior Jody Adewale and freshman Stanley Havili could see time, as could Coleman, who has the size to shuttle from tailback to fullback.

There are some more questions that need to be answered along USC's offensive line. The losses of guards Taitusi Lutui and Fred Matua and tackle Winston Justice to the NFL haven't exactly left the cupboard bare. The two returning starters, junior left tackle Sam Baker and senior center Ryan Kalil, are All-America candidates and both will be very high draft picks when they become available to pro teams. Around them, USC will fill spots with highly acclaimed former recruits who have been champing at the bit for their chance to shine.

Sophomore guard Chilo Rachal and senior tackle Kyle Williams will start on the right side. Rachal is likely to leave USC with some honors of his own in a couple years time. Right now, it appears that junior Drew Radovich is edging sophomore Jeff Byers for the left guard spot. Radovich was very highly touted when he arrived at USC with Baker, but injuries have derailed him to this point. Byers may be more valuable as a utility man, able to fill in at either guard spot or at center. Depth will be provided by junior guard Alatini Malu and redshirt freshmen tackles Charles Brown and Thomas Herring, among others.

The lone Trojan unit that isn't replacing the bulk of its stars is the receiver group. Starters Dwayne Jarrett, the stud junior, and senior Steve Smith lead a group that is not only experienced but has an infusion of new talent. While everyone knows what to expect from Jarrett, Smith and senior Chris McFoy, sophomore Patrick Turner should step up as well. Freshman Vidal Hazelton has wowed during camp, and his classmate Travon Patterson has impressed with his speed and moves. Another freshman, David Ausberry could also see some time.

Junior tight end Fred Davis is the entrenched starter and may well become one of Booty's favorite targets. Davis has put on a ton of muscle since entering USC as a touted wide receiver, and while his pass catching skills have not dropped off, his blocking skills have become invaluable. Incoming freshman Anthony McCoy has impressed, while sophomore Jimmy Miller and juniors Dale Thompson and Gerald Washington could make a move for more time.

The Defense

The 2005 USC defense was wracked by injury and inexperience, culminating in an embarrassing performance in the Rose Bowl, where Young ran and threw through the Trojan defense as easily as any player has in the Carroll Era. If USC is to bounce back from that difficult loss and again compete for the national championship, it will start with this group. With Nick Holt returning to USC as defensive coordinator/defensive line coach and Rocky Seto moving to secondary coach, leaving Ken Norton with sole duty for the linebackers, the coaching changes are minor - and likely beneficial. The experience gained by the youngsters filling in for the injured hordes last season should also benefit what will be the fastest, most aggressive group of defenders since Carroll arrived - if they can just stay healthy!

The USC defensive line is where it all begins. All-America candidate Lawrence Jackson, a junior defensive end, is the headliner. He had 10 sacks in 2005 and even more is expected of him this year. Junior nose tackle Sedrick Ellis is the other returning starter. By the end of the 2005 schedule, Ellis had begun looking like the inside force the Trojans had been missing with the departure of 2004 All-American Mike Patterson. His continued development is crucial this season.

Opposite Jackson, sophomore Kyle Moore and junior Jeff Schweiger have been splitting reps and both should see time. Both are very athletic and quick, however their time could be limited by Carroll and Co.'s tinkering with a modified 3-4 set that has been evident throughout camp. Junior Chris Barrett looks to have the inside track to start next to Ellis at tackle. He's taken to the position well since converting from end. Health is always a question with Barrett, and if he should go down, sophomore Fili Moala appears ready to step in. Freshmen Averill Spicer, Alex Parsons and Walker Lee Ashley are other options for depth inside.

Why has USC been looking at using four linebackers at the same time? Maybe because the Trojans have seven linebackers who would likely be starters at a majority of the other Pac-10 schools? Health issues decimated this group a year ago, as senior captain Dallas Sartz went down for the season in the second game and sophomore Brian Cushing, junior Keith Rivers and junior Thomas Williams all either missed time or played a number of games with injuries.

However, as 2006 kicks off, the group, which also includes senior Oscar Lua and sophomores Rey Maualuga and Kaluka Maiava, is healthy and has been an intimidating force on Howard Jones Field. Right now, it appears that Cushing, Maualuga, Sartz and Rivers would see most of the time in a 3-4 set, with co-captain Lua getting plenty of reps in the middle position. Some of the 3-4 talk is a tad overblown, as I don't see Carroll straying too far from his traditional 4-3 unless the opposition is a clear passing team. No matter who starts, all seven will see the field - often.

Once again, outside experts look at the USC secondary and see problems. And, yes, the Trojans are replacing All-American strong safety Darnell Bing as well as long-time starting corner Justin Wyatt. However, Carroll seems to think this might be his best defensive backfield since he came to University Park in 2001. Junior free safety Josh Pinkard might be Carroll's favorite player and is likely USC's best all-around athlete on defense. He played safety and corner in 2005 - basically, wherever the injury-riddled Trojans needed him - and was stellar. He will be in a playmaking role this season and will shine. Sophomore Kevin Ellison is slated for the strong safety spot. He went down with a knee injury after a crucial interception at Arizona State. Look out for big freshman Taylor Mays out of Seattle, though. His size, speed and instincts have the defensive coaches drooling over his promise at a safety spot.

At the corners, youth is again served. Junior Terrell Thomas was off to an excellent start in 2005 before going down with a knee injury against Arkansas (sensing a pattern, here?). He's back at one corner, while sophomore Kevin Thomas could start at the other side, although sophomore Cary Harris has had a great summer camp and will be tough to keep off the field. Sophomore Mozique McCurtis has brought a physical aspect to the corner spot in camp and should also get some opportunities to shine early in the season. Freshman Shareece Wright is an up-and-comer.

Special Teams

Arizona State transfer Greg Woidneck appears to have nailed down the tough duty of replacing All-American punter Tom Malone. His booming boots helped him beat out sophomore Taylor Odegard. Junior Mario Danelo, who made a Pac-10 record 83 PATs in 2005, and also hit 11-of-12 field goals, will handle those duties again. His limited range, however, means that sophomore David Buehler, whose booming leg appears to have taken away Troy Van Blarcom's kickoff job this summer, may also see the field in long FG situations. Junior Will Collins is in his third year as the long snapper.

One of the happiest stories of training camp has to be the return of Reed as first-team punt returner. Not many expected to see Reed on the field again after he caught a cleat in the overgrown turf at Notre Dame last October. Cary Harris will handle kickoffs, with players like Patterson, Gable, Mays and Moody all possibly seeing some time.

Schedule

USC again opens with three road games in its first four outings, including its first two Pac-10 games. Septembers are never easy in Troy, and this season, November looks even more difficult. Following the opener in Fayetteville, the Trojans host Big XII foe Nebraska on Sept. 16, just before conference play gets rolling. The Trojans open the Pac-10 schedule on Sept. 23 at up-and-coming Arizona, before heading to the Palouse to face Washington State. After facing Washington and preseason No. 24 Arizona State in the Coliseum, the Trojans have a week off before hitting the road again to visit Oregon State on Oct. 28 and Stanford on Nov. 4. USC closes the season with three tough Coliseum match-ups and a trip to Pasadena. Following a homecoming visit by preseason No. 21 Oregon on Nov. 11, preseason No. 9 Cal visits on Nov. 18 and traditional rival Notre Dame, ranked No. 2, visits Nov, 25. The Trojans' annual showdown with UCLA closes out the schedule, Dec. 2 at the Rose Bowl.

Though the Trojans' 2006 slate presents its share of challenges, the way the schedule lays out is about as positive as any long-time USC fan could hope for. With Troy's long-standing tradition of playing top-notch non-conference foes, you know that most new USC players will likely face a strong test early in any season. The opening trip to Arkansas harkens back to 2003 - again - when Leinart and Co. visited Auburn to open what was considered the nation's most difficult schedule. While this Razorback team is not as highly regarded as that Auburn team was heading into the season, it's a tough task kicking off a season in almost any SEC setting. Still, almost all of USC's toughest opponents in 2006 - at least according to preseason prognosticators - have one thing in common: they visit the Coliseum, where USC hasn't lost since September 2001, and where Carroll has instilled a mystique about protecting the home field. Nebraska, ASU, Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame highlight the best home schedule (for fans, at least) in many years.

While I would be pleased with a 10-2 record and a trip to the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day from this edition of the Trojan football team, I doubt anyone in that locker room come Sept. 2 is even considering that an option. Such are the expectations of the coaches and players during this era of USC football. And you know what? If the Trojans can survive three road tests in the first four games unscathed, who's to tell them they can't be in Glendale, Az., on January 8, 2007? The Trojans' most difficult stretch of opponents comes at the exact right time for USC - November, where Carroll's teams have been quite literally unbeatable during his career. Sure, Oregon, Cal or Notre Dame could break through and beat USC this season. But in November … in the Coliseum? Who would you pick under those circumstances? That's what I thought.

No matter the outcomes, it's great to have Trojan Football back. Bring on Arkansas and Nebraska! Look out, Bears, Irish and Bruins! It's time to kick it off.

Tom Haire (Tom4SC) has been writing for USCFootball.com for six years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the television advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94).

He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com, and can be reached at thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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