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FOOTBALL | USC PREVIEW

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Trojans expect to be good, possibly very good, but it just won't be the same for Carroll & Co. without two Heisman Trophy winners, a long winning streak and the attention that came with it all

September 01, 2006|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

The Heisman Trophy-winning tailback is gone.

So is the Heisman-winning quarterback.

The most star-studded era in USC history -- along with the Trojans' 34-game winning streak and hopes for a third consecutive national title -- ended in January with a dramatic loss to Texas in the Rose Bowl.

USC begins a new season without Heisman winners Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, but Coach Pete Carroll and his players aren't expecting a substantial drop-off in a program that has compiled a 48-4 record in the last four seasons.

Carroll, however, misses the rock-star atmosphere created by last season's national media crush. He accepts, but does not exactly embrace, the return to normalcy.

"Do I welcome it?" Carroll said, laughing. "No. I would rather have the buzz and all the excitement about all the players.

"Hopefully we'll re-create it in the next couple years. It takes a while to do that."

It might not take long if USC gets solid play from its quarterback and defense and contributions from one of the most talented recruiting classes in school history.

"This year is kind of similar to my freshman year," senior flanker Steve Smith said.

That was 2003, the year the Trojans opened the season at Auburn with an almost entirely new backfield that featured an untested Leinart succeeding Heisman winner Carson Palmer.

Leinart, a third-year sophomore who had never thrown a pass in a college game, managed the offense efficiently, freshmen Bush and LenDale White got their first carries and the defense dominated in a 23-0 victory that started the Trojans on their run to the first of two consecutive Associated Press national titles.

Leinart won the Heisman in 2004, Bush in 2005 and White finished with a school-record 57 touchdowns.

The trio moved to the NFL after helping the Trojans finish first nationally in total offense (579.7 yards a game) and second in scoring (49 points), but offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is not worried.

"I don't come to work any earlier or any later based on whether you have a Heisman Trophy winner or not," Kiffin said. "We're still going to game plan the same way."

John David Booty, a fourth-year junior, opens the season as the starting quarterback with redshirt freshman Mark Sanchez the backup.

Booty skipped his senior season in high school to compete for the job in 2003, then watched Leinart develop into one of the best quarterbacks in college football history. Booty had back surgery during the spring but says he has never felt stronger.

"I've been preparing for this for a long time," said Booty, who has completed 34 of 56 passes for 417 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions. "You don't want to try and do too much. My job is to get the ball to the right people."

Smith and All-American split end Dwayne Jarrett provide Booty with one of the nation's best receiving duos. Tight end Fred Davis also appears ready for a breakout season.

But a key to the offense will be establishing a rushing attack and, unlike 2003, the onus might be on true freshmen from the outset.

Junior Chauncey Washington, who was academically ineligible the last two seasons, opened training camp as the No. 1 tailback. But Washington has been slowed by a hamstring injury, putting freshmen C.J. Gable, Allen Bradford, Emmanuel Moody and Stafon Johnson on track to possibly play major roles.

Senior center Ryan Kalil, a three-year starter, and All-American tackle Sam Baker anchor an offensive line that is replacing tackle Winston Justice and guards Taitusi Lutui and Fred Matua, all NFL draft picks.

Senior Kyle Williams is the right tackle, sophomore Chilo Rachal the right guard and senior Drew Radovich and sophomore Jeff Byers could share time at left guard.

Carroll has made several changes to the defense. In February, he hired Nick Holt as coordinator, a responsibility Carroll handled throughout his five seasons with the Trojans.

Last season, the Trojans ranked 48th nationally in total defense (361 yards a game) and 35th in scoring defense (22.9 points).

"Our defense is just amazingly fast right now, I don't think you can get much faster," said senior linebacker Dallas Sartz, who sat out most of last season because of a shoulder injury. "That's just going to open up so many doors and possibilities. It's going to surprise people."

Sartz, a team captain, leads the nation's deepest linebacker corps. To take advantage of the depth, the Trojans moved away from their traditional 4-3 alignment and adopted a hybrid 3-4. The scheme puts sophomore Brian Cushing on the line of scrimmage in the "elephant" position, a term coined by the San Francisco 49ers in the late 1980s.

Sartz will start on the strong side with junior Keith Rivers on the weak side. Senior Oscar Lua and sophomore Rey Maualuga battled throughout the spring and fall to start at middle linebacker, but both will play.

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