|Trojans figure to contend for national title again|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 21 August 2008 08:06|
Guard Jeff Byers, the only returning starter on the offensive line, missed time while recovering from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
Explosive sophomore tailback Joe McKnight injured two fingers when a teammate accidentally closed a dormitory door on his right hand.
And about 20 percent of the team came down with a skin irritation that caused some to miss practice.
The preseason has been far more eventful than the Trojans would prefer. If they can make it to the regular season intact, No. 3 USC has another loaded team, capable of extending its NCAA record streak of six straight seasons of at least 11 victories and a BCS appearance.
``We've had a terrific run with the kids that have been in the program, that have won national championships, but they've all left us,'' USC coach Pete Carroll said. ``To see the change in leadership and the emergence of the leadership, we sense a whole new excitement.''
The Trojans, 70-8 in the last six years with two national championships, open the season Aug. 30 at Virginia. But it's USC's second game that's been the focus of attention nationally for months - against No. 2 Ohio State on Sept. 13 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The Trojans aren't pointing to that game yet; that's just not the way they do things.
``Every game is a championship game for us,'' Carroll has said, repeating his mantra of previous years.
The real championship game will be played Jan. 8 in Miami. The last time it was played there, the Trojans crushed Oklahoma 55-19 on Jan. 4, 2005.
The Trojans were ranked No. 1 entering last season, but a shocking 24-23 loss to 41-point underdog Stanford kept them from playing for the national championship. They later lost at Oregon 24-17 before winning their last five games including a 49-17 triumph over Illinois in the Rose Bowl. The standards are so high at USC these days that 11-2 and a final ranking of No. 3 represented a disappointing season.
``One thing I've noticed about this team compared to other teams here is we came out the first day and exploded,'' senior wide receiver Patrick Turner said. ``This team really hit it off the bat. There are a bunch of playmakers on both sides of the ball. There's a lot of talent all over the place.''
USC returns four starters on offense and seven on defense plus punter Greg Woidneck and place-kicker David Buehler. Carroll said last week the status of Sanchez and the offensive line were his main areas of concern, but Sanchez's knee has improved to the point where he appears to have a good shot at playing at Virginia. Carroll raved about the offensive line this week.
``He's gaining confidence in what he can do,'' Carroll said of Sanchez. ``I think hope is alive. He's got a real chance. I'm not making any choices, decisions or anything right now. I don't need to. But I'm really encouraged.''
Sanchez started three games in place of the injured John David Booty last season and completed 69 of 114 passes for 695 yards and seven touchdowns with five interceptions. Sanchez is backed up by Mitch Mustain, who went 8-0 as a starter for Arkansas two years ago before transferring.
Carroll said Byers return to health has given the offensive line a lift.
``It all started when Jeff (Byers) came back,'' the coach said. ``Pass protection is way better than it was a week ago. They had a real good spring, but when they came back, they were struggling. They've really turned the corner; Jeff is a big part of this. It's the most encouraging part of training camp.''
Offensive line coach Pat Ruel said he's glad there are doubts about the players he works with.
``It makes the offensive line and myself want to answer the challenge,'' he said. ``Let's show everybody.''
McKnight, Stafon Johnson and Allen Bradford are among six highly regarded tailbacks vying for playing time.
``I gained 20 pounds working out this summer (to around 200 pounds), and I didn't lose any speed,'' McKnight said. ``I'm way more comfortable now, it's better to know what you're doing.''
McKnight said he wasn't comfortable until the sixth game of last season, against Arizona, when he set up the final 10 points in USC's 20-13 victory with a 45-yard punt return and a 59-yard run.
The Trojans look to be especially loaded on defense despite losing three players - linemen Sedrick Ellis and Lawrence Jackson and linebacker Keith Rivers - who were first-round picks in the NFL draft.
Among the returning starters are linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing, who would have been high draft picks as well had they decided to turn pro instead of returning for their senior seasons. Both have been honored as Rose Bowl defensive MVPs - Maualuga last year and Cushing the previous year.
``I'm sure everybody's confident on the defensive side that we're going to be somebody,'' Maualuga said. ``I know we can't replace those three high-caliber players, but we've got so many guys who learned from them.''
Linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr., said the current group is ``no doubt the best I've had.''
``Rey Maualuga is my Superman, Brian Cushing is my Batman,'' Norton said. ``Kaluka (Maiava) could quietly be better than both of them. There cannot be a better group of linebackers in the country because of their completeness.''