LOS ANGELES (AP) -Southern California was about to begin its third day of preseason practice last month when starting quarterback Mark Sanchez was suddenly on the ground screaming.
Sanchez somehow dislocated his left kneecap while warming up, and for a brief period, it was as if the three years he spent preparing to become the Trojans' starting quarterback meant absolutely nothing.
Now he doesn't mind reflecting back on the events of Aug. 8, acknowledging his relief at recovering so quickly.
``No, not even close,'' Sanchez replied when asked if he had ever been so scared. ``It was just a turn, a hop, I turned into my throw. From there, we rushed to the hospital, freaking out, hoping for the best, fearing the worst.''
Fortunately, there was no serious damage. But, as Sanchez put it: ``They were saying four to six weeks. I wouldn't have that.''
No surprise there. The fourth-year junior had worked too hard and too long to allow a freak injury to spoil his dream.
Sanchez's father is frequently at practice, but wasn't there that day.
``He was pretty upbeat when I first talked to him,'' Nick Sanchez said. ``They had viewed the X-rays, he knew by that time the injury wasn't serious.''
His son was held out of practice for more than two weeks, but recovered in time to play in USC's season-opening 52-7 victory at Virginia on Aug. 30. And play he did, completing 26 of 35 passes for a career-high 338 yards and three touchdowns.
Sanchez was on target with everything he threw - short, deep, left and right.
``I was not surprised,'' offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. ``I knew how well he had prepared. I knew he had a great offseason of preparation, both physically and mentally.
``(But) it's one game. I think he needs to continue to grow in all aspects of the game. We weren't faced with a lot of adversity. Not every game are we going to be ahead 21-0 after our first three drives.''
It would be surprising if the No. 1 Trojans experience that kind of success against No. 3 Ohio State next Saturday, when Sanchez will have an opportunity to really make his mark in an early season showdown at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
``That's going to be a great matchup for us,'' Sanchez said. ``We love competing against the top teams. That's why I came here. It's going to be a great day for college football. The Coliseum is going to be rocking.''
Sanchez, a 6-foot-3, 225-pounder, selected USC after being chosen as the Parade All-American Player of the Year in 2004, when he passed for 2,441 yards and 24 touchdowns with only four interceptions as a senior at Mission Viejo High.
He redshirted in 2005, and backed up John David Booty the past two years, starting three games last season after Booty broke his hand. Sanchez did pretty well, going 66-for-110 for 642 yards and seven touchdowns with four interceptions in victories over Arizona and Notre Dame and a loss at Oregon.
But he looks like a different player now.
``The more you play, the more experience you get, the more natural it is for you to get through progressions and feel more comfortable,'' Sarkisian said. ``Last year, he might have been quick, when the first read wasn't there, to pull the ball down and scramble out of the pocket.
``I thought he showed a lot of playmaking ability last year. He's come a long way since last year. It takes any quarterback time to develop.''
Sanchez has developed to the point where it appears he has the ability to follow successfully in the footsteps of Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Booty as standout quarterbacks for the Trojans under coach Pete Carroll.
``I think (Sanchez) and Carson throw the best deep ball that we've had,'' Sarkisian said.
Palmer was the quarterback when Carroll arrived in 2001. After a so-so junior year, when the Trojans went 6-6, Palmer and his team blossomed the following season. He won the Heisman Trophy, and USC went 11-2 including a 38-17 victory over Iowa in the Orange Bowl.
After two years of preparation, Leinart became the quarterback in 2003, and had a 37-2 record in three years as a starter, winning the Heisman as a junior and finishing second to teammate Reggie Bush as a senior.
Then, it was Booty's turn after three years in the program, and he guided the Trojans to a 20-3 record in two years as the starter.
Now, Sanchez's three-year wait is over.
``That's frustrating when you wait that long,'' he said. ``There's a never-ending battle to play here, but that's what I signed up for. It feels like there's not going to be any payoff. It's tough, you kind of forge your own mental toughness. The reward is so sweet.''
Carroll tabbed Sanchez as the starter last spring.
``He feels much more confident,'' Nick Sanchez said. ``He really feels like he can turn it loose. He's always worked very hard. This summer, he extended himself dramatically. The coaches and players had placed their faith in him, he was going to do everything he could to justify that faith.''
One thing Sanchez did this summer was spend hours working out with several teammates.
``We had tons of kids at our house. Lots of food,'' Nick Sanchez said with a smile. ``They became much more attached, more of a family. They'd go down to Mission Viejo High, they'd work for hours. Then, they'd to go the water park. There were anywhere from six to 13 kids every weekend.''
One of those was senior wide receiver Patrick Turner.
``We had fun, got our work done as well,'' Turner said. ``Mark has always been a great player, in my mind. He still hasn't played his best football.''
As USC's No. 1 quarterback, the demands on Sanchez's time have increased dramatically. He seems to be handling it just fine, and that's no coincidence.
In a group interview, for example, Sanchez is polite to a fault, and generally shakes hands with every reporter involved.
``He'd better. If he doesn't, you let me know,'' his father said. ``Even before he was a football player, those are things we wanted to instill in him. I just felt it was the right thing. It's about respect.
``We've always tried to instill leadership qualities in our three sons. Education has always been paramount, long before they were athletes. Sit in the front row in class, be the first one to raise your hand. They had tremendous responsibilities. We made it difficult at times.''
That turned out to be a good way to prepare his son for a career at USC.

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