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SPORTS EXTRA / COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2000

Palmer Pilot

Trojans Feel Good About Their Chances With Solid Quarterback and Defense

August 26, 2000|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It became a frequent, if slightly comical, routine at USC's summer training camp.

Whenever quarterback Carson Palmer could not find an open receiver, when he scrambled from the pocket, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson took off running after him.

And the moment anyone--be it a hulking linebacker or diminutive cornerback--got close to Palmer, Jackson yelled "Get down, get down." This duck-and-cover drill had the usually aggressive quarterback mumbling.

"It's not something I'm used to," he said.

But keeping Palmer out of harm's way is essential to USC's prospects this season, a lesson learned in 1999 when he suffered a broken collarbone in the third game and the team stumbled.

This season, his health is a big reason why the Trojans are ranked No. 15 and picked to finish at or near the top of the Pacific 10 Conference, which could put them back in the Rose Bowl for the first time in five years.

Of course, the Trojans often seem to get the benefit of the doubt--sometimes undeservedly so--in preseason polls, a remnant of their success in decades past. But the current optimism is based on more than the quarterback.

Almost everyone returns to a defense that led the nation in takeaways in 1999. The front seven features seniors Ennis Davis at tackle and Zeke Moreno and Markus Steele at linebacker.

A veteran defense might prove critical if Palmer needs a few games to regain his touch.

"We like that pressure," Moreno said. "In order to win games, we think we've got to have great defense."

USC also must answer questions at key positions.

Uncertainties abound at tailback, on the offensive line and in the kicking game. The defensive secondary is dealing with the loss of Antuan Simmons, a senior leader who will redshirt this season while recuperating from abdominal surgery.

Most of all, the Trojans must learn to avoid the missteps and penalties that contributed to last season's 6-6 record.

The first three weeks of the season will tell a lot as USC opens against No. 22 Penn State in the Kickoff Classic in East Rutherford, N.J., on Sunday, then comes home for a Sept. 9 game against a Colorado team that scored 62 points in the Insight.com Bowl last December.

In the third year of his tenure at USC, Coach Paul Hackett is looking for signs that his team can win the big games.

"I think we are a stronger football team than we were a year ago," Hackett said. "But where are we going to find the consistency that evaded us last year? Where are we going to find the killer instinct?"

QUARTERBACKS: It all starts with Palmer. Hackett likes to say the redshirt sophomore, with only eight starts in his career, is a work in progress. But USC is unquestionably better with him in the huddle.

His receivers talk about the zip with which he delivers the ball, allowing them to make a quick catch, then make a move. Other teammates talk about his calm leadership.

"He brings such hope," tailback Malaefou MacKenzie said. "Even when things aren't going right, he can make a play."

Should anything happen to Palmer, the Trojans have senior Mike Van Raaphorst, knowledgeable but prone to interceptions, and freshman Matt Cassel, who was surprisingly poised in camp.

RUNNING BACKS: Sultan McCullough has the speed but must show he can gain tough yards up the middle at tailback. MacKenzie is talented but injury-prone. Petros Papadakis is still sore from a broken foot last fall.

All of them will play until one emerges from the pack. On the basis of camp, McCullough looks like the best bet.

At fullback, Charlie Landrigan returns after starting the last nine games in 1999. He is a capable blocker but the Trojans hope to get more offense from the position.

RECEIVERS: Sophomores Kareem Kelly and Marcell Allmond should compensate for the loss of R. Jay Soward and Windrell Hayes.

Kelly was the 1999 Pac-10 freshman of the year, catching 54 passes for four touchdowns. He quickly developed a rapport with Palmer this summer.

Another sophomore, Steve Stevenson, figured to be the No. 3 receiver but started slowly with a sore hamstring. That left an opening for Matt Nickels, a walk-on senior who performed well enough to earn a scholarship. Speedy freshman Keary Colbert is also in the mix.

The question is whether USC can get more from its tight ends. Senior Antoine Harris must prove he can be a reliable receiver. He is backed up by redshirt sophomore Scott Huber and two promising freshmen, Alex Holmes and Gregg Guenther Jr.

OFFENSIVE LINE: This was Hackett's biggest worry when he arrived in 1998 and nothing has changed. A new crop--freshman Joe McGuire, redshirt freshman Nate Steinbacher--might be a year away, so the Trojans will rely on upperclassmen to begin the season.

Dependable senior Brent McCaffrey will play left tackle and senior Eric Denmon starts at center. Sophomore Zach Wilson and junior tackle Faaesea Mailo fill the right side.

Of immediate concern is left guard, where senior Trevor Roberts sprained his foot last week. Redshirt freshman Lenny Vandermade will replace him against Penn State.

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