MIAMI — A year ago today, USC clinched a share of the national championship with a receiving corps that featured the Trojans' all-time receptions leader and another player on pace to smash nearly every school record.
Keary Colbert moved on to the NFL after catching two touchdown passes in the Trojans' Rose Bowl victory over Michigan. Mike Williams, who had two years of eligibility remaining, tried to do the same after passing for a touchdown in the Rose Bowl and was ultimately banished from college football.
The dynamic duo's exit left quarterback Matt Leinart with an unproven group of pass-catchers. Sophomore flanker Steve Smith, the top returning receiver, had only 17 career receptions.
But after a mistake-filled opener, USC's receivers gradually erased skepticism with solid and sometimes spectacular play. They helped the Trojans post their first perfect regular season since 1972. And despite the absence of Colbert and Williams, and a midseason injury that sidelined Smith for five games, Leinart became the second USC quarterback in three years to win the Heisman Trophy.
Six players -- including two tight ends and a running back -- caught 21 or more passes.
"Somehow, our guys found a way to contribute," Coach Pete Carroll said. "Guys stepped up and did the things that you need to do and we were able to rally without those guys and find a way to put it together."
USC is counting on one more dynamic performance by its receivers Tuesday when the top-ranked Trojans play No. 2 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
Most of the pregame buildup concerning USC's offense has centered on Leinart, running back/receiver Reggie Bush and running back LenDale White.
Smith senses that Oklahoma might underestimate Trojan receivers.
"I think they're kind of looking at us like, 'Oh, we can just one-on-one them,' " Smith said. "It's an exciting opportunity for us to go out and take the challenge."
No USC receiver faced a more daunting challenge this season than Dwayne Jarrett. The 6-foot-5 freshman from New Jersey was thrust into a major role when the NCAA denied USC's request to reinstate Williams after he tried to turn pro.
Jarrett overcame a severe bout of homesickness and developed along the lines of the 6-5 Williams. Jarrett said he was not bothered by comparisons to a receiver who is regarded as perhaps the best in USC history.
"I just wanted people to know me as Dwayne Jarrett, not the next Mike Williams," Jarrett said. "Mike is a great player, but I wanted to come in and make a name for myself."
Jarrett shined during training camp, but he dropped a few passes and ran routes incorrectly in the season opener against Virginia Tech before more than 90,000 at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
By the end of the season, however, Jarrett had amassed a team-high 50 receptions for 734 yards and 12 touchdowns.
His rise offset the loss of Smith, who broke his leg in the fifth game against California.
The injury occurred a week after Smith caught seven passes for 129 yards and a touchdown in the Trojans' 31-28 comeback victory at Stanford. The quiet Smith returned for the final two games and finished with 35 receptions, three touchdowns and a newfound swagger.
"With time, you get more comfortable," Smith said. "Just learning from [Colbert], I saw he had a swagger last year and Coach Carroll told me, 'Don't be afraid to show it when you got it and you're feeling good out there.' I think it elevates your game."
Offensive coordinator Norm Chow successfully deployed Bush as a wide receiver in the opener against Virginia Tech, but the sophomore's role expanded further when Smith was sidelined. He wound up as the second-leading receiver with 41 receptions and seven touchdowns. Sophomore Chris McFoy and senior Jason Mitchell also came on and finished with 21 and 13 catches, respectively.
"Losing Steve was a loss but it did make us better now because other guys were forced into playing more," said Lane Kiffin, USC's receivers coach. "If you can survive that and stay undefeated, that's the bottom line. In that sense it was a blessing."
The Trojans also benefited from a talented tight-end combination that combined for 58 receptions. Junior Dominique Byrd missed the first five games while recovering from two injuries to the same knee and finished with 34 catches. Senior Alex Holmes had 24.
Chow acknowledged that he was concerned when the season began, but said he was not surprised by the collective effort of the receiving corps.
"It's just normal -- they have a role and they assume the role and they play better because they know they're the guys that have to play," Chow said. "If you show confidence in them they're fine."