2004 USC Football Outlook|
July 22, 2004
The talk will be inevitable, and understandably so.
"Can the USC football team defend its national championship in 2004?"
But fourth-year USC head coach Pete Carroll is having none of it.
"That talk is beyond our control," said Carroll, the National Coach of the Year in 2003 after his team was named the national champion by Associated Press, Football Writers Association of America, The Sporting News, New York Times, ESPN.com, SI.com, CBS.SportsLine.com, Collegefootballnews.com and several other organizations. "Our goal always will be to win the Pac-10 championship and the Rose Bowl.
"But because of our accomplishments the past two seasons, we know we'll be challenged to the max each game now. We understand that we'll always see our opponents at their best. So we must take our game to the next level and be ready for everyone's best shot."
On paper, USC appears to have the ingredients to deal with those shots. The Trojans return 15 starters (7 on offense, 6 on defense, plus both kickers) from last year's record-setting team that won its last 9 games en route to a 12-1 overall mark. Troy captured its second consecutive Pac-10 title (going 7-1) and beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl to secure its 10th national crown (its first in 25 years). Along the way, USC swept traditional rivals UCLA and Notre Dame for the second year in a row (only the second time it has ever done that in back-to-back seasons).
All of that came on the heels of USC's nearly-as-successful 2002 campaign that ended with an 11-2 mark, a victory in the Orange Bowl and a No. 4 final ranking.
In all, 79 squadmen return from last year's national championship team, including 56 who saw playing time in 2003 (50 were lettermen and 31 were on the season-ending 2-deep). Some 24 Trojans have at least 1 career start.
Joining them will be 20 new scholarship players, including 3 who enrolled at USC this past spring and participated in spring practice. They comprise what many are saying is the school's second consecutive No. 1 recruiting class in the nation.
It's no wonder, then, that the Trojans likely will enter the 2004 campaign as a pre-season favorite to repeat as national champs.
"The key for us this year will be whether we can return to the work ethic that made it possible to have the success we've had the past few years," said Carroll, who is 29-9 at USC (including 10-0 in November). "It's a work ethic we must have in workouts, in practices and in games. We'll have a very competitive environment each day to determine playing time and starting roles. Each player must bring his best every day. If we can have that kind of work ethic, we'll be on the right track."
And, if that happens, Carroll could have USC primed to relive the glory days of the program, when Troy ruled the college football world in the '30s, '60s and '70s. After all, his Trojans have won 20 of their last 21 games (and their past 15 home contests) and have been dominant on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Troy has scored at least 20 points in the past 26 outings, with stretches of 11 consecutive 30-point games and 7 straight 40-point performances, and last year scored a Pac-10 record 534 points. And the Trojan defense-whose +1.33 turnover margin and +111 takeaways in Carroll's first 3 seasons are best in the nation-topped the country in 2003 in rushing defense. Last year, 2 Trojans finished in the Top 10 in the Heisman Trophy balloting, 5 were All-American first team selections and 9 were All-Pac-10 first teamers.
USC has accomplished this with a multi-pronged offensive attack that stresses efficiency and ball control, an aggressive defensive approach that thrives on getting turnovers and an effective, mistake-free kicking game.
"That's my fundamental approach to the game: control the ball on offense, go get it on defense and make things happen on special teams," said Carroll.
On offense in 2004, USC's entire backfield, its star wide receiver and the tight ends are back, but a new wide receiver must be developed and most of the line must be rebuilt. Defensively, Troy should be strong at linebacker and up the middle from front to back, while the ends and corners must be replaced. The kicking game returns intact, except for the snapper.
Headlining the offense will be quarterback Matt Leinart and wide receiver Mike Williams, All-Americans who should figure prominently in this year's Heisman race (they were sixth and eighth, respectively, in last season's voting).
Only the second sophomore (along with Stanford's John Elway) to be named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year, Leinart threw for 3,556 yards and a Pac-10 record 38 touchdowns (with only 9 interceptions) last fall while finishing third nationally in passing efficiency (a USC record 164.5 rating).
For a while, it appeared that Williams--who has 176 receptions for 2,579 yards and a USC record 30 touchdowns in his 2-year career--would not return in 2004 after taking advantage of a court ruling to leave after his sophomore year for the NFL. But he was not selected because of a judicial stay on that ruling, which was then overturned. So he sought to have his collegiate eligibility restored (as of mid-July, he was awaiting word from the NCAA). Last season, he had 95 catches for 1,314 yards and a USC record 16 TDs. He was sixth nationally in receptions and 10th in receiving yards in 2003.
All the running backs return, also: starting tailback Hershel Dennis (661 rushing yards in 2003) and top backups LenDale White (his 754 yards last season made him the first true freshman to lead USC in rushing, while his 13 rushing TDs was a Trojan frosh record) and Reggie Bush (a Freshman All-American who set the USC freshman all-purpose yardage mark with 1,331 yards last fall), plus fullback Brandon Hancock (but he'll miss 2004 with a knee injury).
The tight end corps is deep, with Gregg Guenther Jr. (17 catches and 2 TDs in 2003)-also a star on the Trojan basketball team-back after starting the last half of 2003, along with Dominique Byrd (14 catches and 6 early starts in 2003) and Alex Holmes (58 career catches), USC's starter in 2002 but injured last season.
Tackle Winston Justice and guard Fred Matua return as starters on the line (John Drake, who started 7 times last year at guard and tackle, is back as well). But Justice will not participate in 2004 because of a student conduct violation.
Key losses from the offense are wide receiver Keary Colbert, a 4-year starter who set the USC career receptions record (207), and a trio of experienced linemen: All-American tackle Jacob Rogers (a 3-year starter), All-Pac-10 center Norm Katnik (a 3-year starter) and guard Lenny Vandermade (a 4-year starter).
The defense features 6 starters from a year ago: a pair of returning All-Pac-10ers in end-tackle Shaun Cody and tackle Mike Patterson (both are 2-year starters who combined for 81 tackles, 24 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, 3 fumble recoveries and 3 blocked field goals in 2003), always-around-the-ball linebacker Matt Grootegoed (a 3-year starter), 2003 Freshman All-American Darnell Bing and fellow safety Jason Leach (his 88 tackles were second on USC in 2003), and 2003 USC tackle leader Lofa Tatupu (98 stops) at middle linebacker. Cody, Patterson and Grootegoed are All-American candidates.
Other key defenders returning with starting experience include linebacker Dallas Sartz (6 starts), end Frostee Rucker (5 starts), and cornerbacks Ronald Nunn and Kevin Arbet (he missed 2002 and most of 2003 with a foot injury).
Gone from the defense are All-American end Kenechi Udeze, a 3-year starter who left after his junior season to enter the NFL draft (he was the nation's sack co-leader in 2003 when he had 16.5 sacks, 26 tackles for loss and 5 forced fumbles), and fellow end Omar Nazel (a 2-year starter), plus both starting cornerbacks (All-Pac-10er Will Poole, who had 7 interceptions and 80 tackles in 2003, and Marcell Allmond, who led USC to an 18-1 mark when he started in the secondary) and 2-year starting outside linebacker Melvin Simmons.
USC's punter (All-American Tom Malone, whose 49.0 average in 2003 was a school record) and placekicker (Ryan Killeen, whose 65 PATs last year set a Pac-10 record and 19 field goals tied the USC mark) are back, as well as USC's top kick returner (Bush) and punt returner (wide receiver Greig Carlson) from 2003. But both snappers (short snapper Joe Boskovich and long snapper Matt Hayward) must be replaced.
Despite all of its returning talent, skeptics surely will question USC's ability to replace such impact players as Udeze, Colbert, Rogers and Poole. But Carroll speaks from experience when he says he is confident that his 2004 Trojans will respond well. Just look what happened last year when Troy had to replace a number of top performers, including the 2002 Heisman winner (Carson Palmer), the nation's best safety (Troy Polamalu) and 3 NFL-caliber tailbacks (Justin Fargas, Sultan McCullough and Malaefou MacKenzie).
"We understand how to handle personnel losses and move on," said Carroll. "Our team is well-prepared for this because it presents a great opportunity for others to step to the front. They'll take this challenge on with great excitement this year. It'll be fun to see who steps up."
Of course, Carroll-who doubles as the defensive coordinator-isn't the only one responsible for the success of these players. He has an excellent staff of assistant coaches, including 8 from last year-offensive coordinator Norm Chow (the 2002 Broyles Award winner as the nation's top assistant), defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron (named the nation's top recruiter in 2004), Tim Davis (offensive line), Greg Burns (secondary), Lane Kiffin (wide receivers/passing game coordinator), Rocky Seto (he moved from safeties to linebackers this year), Brennan Carroll (tight ends) and Dennis Slutak (special teams)-and 3 newcomers in quarterbacks coach Carl Smith (he has 32 years of experience, including 11 years as an NFL offensive coordinator) and ex-NFL stars Todd McNair (running backs) and Ken Norton Jr. (linebackers).
"I'm excited about this coaching staff," said Carroll. "I'm confident that our players are getting the best coaching in the country."
USC will defend its national championship against a schedule that features 6 opponents who played in bowls last season. The challenge starts right away, as the Trojans open on Aug. 28 against perennial power Virginia Tech in the Black Coaches Association Football Classic in Landover, Md. USC then hosts Colorado State and travels to BYU and Stanford before having a trio of home games (California, Arizona and Washington) followed by a pair of road contests (Washington State and Oregon State). The Trojans then return home to host Arizona and Notre Dame before concluding their season on "Championship Saturday" (Dec. 4) at UCLA. It's a schedule that could help USC better the average overall (72,806) and home (77,804) attendance school records it set last year...and gives credence to the Trojan marketing department's 2004 slogan of "Still The Hottest Ticket In Town."
"Once again, this is a tremendously challenging schedule," said Carroll. "It starts with a big-time opener against a premier program and never lets up. We had tremendous fan support last year and we'll need all of them again in our quest to be the best in 2004."
Seven starters return on offense in 2004: quarterback Matt Leinart, wide receiver Mike Williams, tailback Hershel Dennis, guard Fred Matua, tight end Gregg Guenther Jr., fullback Brandon Hancock and tackle Winston Justice (Hancock and Justice won't play this season). Others back with starting experience include guard John Drake, tight end Dominique Byrd, fullbacks Lee Webb and David Kirtman, and wide receivers Chris McFoy and William Buchanon. USC's top 4 rushers (and 14 of its 17 ballcarriers), its top 4 passers and 16 of the 17 players who caught passes last year return in 2004. But this year's offense has a high standard to live up to: in 2003, the Trojans were fifth nationally in passing efficiency (159.1, first in Pac-10) and scoring offense (a school-record 41.4, first in Pac-10), 13th in passing offense (291.6, second in Pac-10) and 14th in total offense (447.5, second in Pac-10). And USC's rushing offense (155.9), though not nationally ranked, was its best since 1991. Troy scored 68 touchdowns and 534 points last year, both Pac-10 records, and its 6.5 yards per play average was a school record. As an indication of just how prolific USC's offense has become under coordinator Norm Chow, consider that the Trojans have scored at least 20 points in their last 26 games (a school record), including a stretch of 11 consecutive 30-points games (also a USC mark) and 7 straight 40-point contests (a Pac-10 record). And of Troy's 77 offensive scoring drives in 2003, 59 took less than 3 minutes.
"We did a great job offensively last season," said Carroll. "We had a lot of weapons and scored lots of points. We were efficient and took care of the football. A lot of the key players from that offense return this year.
"But we must overcome several obstacles on the offensive side of the ball. First, a starting wide receiver must emerge and we must reconstruct the line. Then, we need to continue developing those young players who contributed so much last year and hope that they can elevate their play. Finally, senior leadership must surface even though we might not have more than two or three seniors starting on offense."
The accurate and efficient left-handed Leinart came out of relative obscurity to more-than-capably fill the shoes of 2002 Heisman winner Carson Palmer. In the process, Leinart has thrust himself to the front of this year's Heisman race and is also a leading candidate for the Davey O'Brien Award. He gave an early indication of his talent when his first career pass went for a touchdown at Auburn in last fall's opener. He went on to throw a Pac-10 record 38 TDs (1 shy of the NCAA sophomore mark). His 164.5 passing efficiency rating ranked third nationally and was a USC record (he's the nation's top-rated returning passer). He set a Pac-10 season mark with 212 consecutive passes without an interception (just 4 throws short of the league's career record). And he punctuated USC's Rose Bowl victory over Michigan by catching a 15-yard scoring pass off a reverse.
"Matt Leinart is coming off a great year," said Carroll. "He far exceeded our hopes. He assumed control of the job immediately and soon was playing like a veteran. He's a smart quarterback who understands our offense. He has a good arm and is a leader. But we have a great group of quarterbacks behind him and they all want to take over the No. 1 spot, so Matt will have to continue to work hard if he wants to hold them off."
Behind Leinart is a stable of very capable backups. Sophomore John David Booty (7-of-14, 50.0%, 90 yds in 2003), believed to be the first football player to graduate a full year early from high school and enroll at a major Division I-A university when he did so last year, became Leinart's backup by the middle of the 2003 season before breaking his wrist late in the year. Then there's senior Brandon Hance (4-of-9, 44.4%, 44 yds in 2003), who started 9 games at Purdue in 2001 and was No. 2 at USC after Booty got hurt last year, as well as senior Matt Cassel (6-of-13, 46.2%, 63 yds in 2003), who has also spent time in his career at tight end and is a pitcher on the Trojan baseball team, junior Billy Hart, an infielder/outfielder on USC's baseball team (he has yet to throw a pass at USC and has seen only brief action in 2002), and walk-on redshirt freshman Michael McDonald, the son of ex-USC All-American Paul McDonald. Joining the signalcalling corps this fall as a freshman is prep All-American Rocky Hinds (St. Bernard High in Playa del Rey, Calif.).
Last fall, the Trojans used a rotation of 3 young tailbacks that worked so well, look for more of the same in 2004. The threesome combined for 1,906 rushing yards (146.6 yards a game) with 20 TDs in 2003; each rushed for at least 500 yards (the first time that had happened at USC since 1988) and averaged at least 4.8 yards per carry. Junior Hershel Dennis (137 tcb, 661 yds, 4.8 avg, 4 TD in 2003, plus 10 rec, 62 yds, 6.2 avg, 1 TD), the veteran of the group, started each game last year and was effective. He'd then give way to LenDale White (141 tcb, team-high 754 yds, 5.3 avg, 13 TD in 2003, plus 6 rec, 15 yds, 2.3 avg, 1 TD) and Reggie Bush (90 tcb, 521 yds, 5.8 avg, 3 TD in 2003, plus 15 rec, 314 yds, 20.9 avg, 4 TD and team-best 18 KOR, 492 yds, 27.3 avg, 1 TD), now both sophomores. The bull-like White, who had a trio of 100-yard games last season, was the first true freshman to lead USC in rushing (his 754 yards were the second most by a Trojan frosh behind Charles White's 858 in 1976) and his 13 rushing TDs were a USC freshman mark (his 14 total TDs tied the USC frosh record). The electrifying Bush earned Freshman All-American first team honors as he set the USC freshman all-purpose yardage record (1,331 yards) and, as a hold-your-breath-when-he-gets-the-ball runner, had 24 plays of 20-plus yards in 2003. He was 10th nationally in kickoff returns (27.3, first in Pac-10) and had a scoring runback. He might sprint for the USC track team this spring (he has a best of 10.42 in the 100 meters).
Looking to break into the tailback rotation are sophomore Chauncey Washington (19 tcb, 65 yds, 3.4 avg, plus 1 rec, 6 yds, 6.0 avg), another power runner who might have figured more prominently in 2003 had an early ankle injury not hampered him, and quick redshirt freshman Desmond Reed, who worked at wide receiver and in the secondary last fall, along with a pair of walk-ons in junior Andre Woodert (3 tcb, 19 yds, 6.3 avg in 2003) and redshirt freshman John Griffin.
"The tailback position is a strong one for us," said Carroll. "While we've been effective rotating these young players, it will be interesting to see if any of them can take over a leadership role this season. Each offers something different: Hershel Dennis brings stability, LenDale White brings power and Reggie Bush brings speed."
At fullback, fleet junior Brandon Hancock (1 tcb, -2 yds, -2.0 avg in 2003, plus 13 rec, 160 yds, 12.3 avg, 2 TD), a tough blocker and excellent receiver, was expected to return as the starter, but he'll miss 2004 while recuperating from knee surgery. So senior Lee Webb (9 tac, 1 FF in 2003, plus 4 tcb, 0 yds)-he started 5 times at fullback last year after seeing action at linebacker (where he played in 2001 and the first half of 2002)-will take over the starting job. Backing him will be junior David Kirtman (5 tcb, 23 yds, 4.6 avg in 2003, plus 5 rec., 28 yds, 5.6 avg), a rugged blocker who has starting experience and is a key special teamer, and redshirt freshman Jody Adewale, a converted tailback. Walk-on redshirt freshman Sean Kelly, another former tailback, also is available.
"We use our fullbacks in a variety of roles, not only as blockers and runners but as pass catchers," said Carroll. "This group can do all of those things well."
"Obviously, it would be great to get Mike Williams back," said Carroll. "He's an impact player because of his size, speed and ability. He changes the dynamic of the game when he's on the field. He has had a great career here already and we would expect more of the same in 2004."
It's always difficult to lose a player the caliber of 4-year starter Keary Colbert, USC's career receptions leader (207) who had 1,000-yard receiving seasons the past 2 years (including 1,013 yards and 9 TDs on 69 catches in 2003). His underrated, yet steady, ability-remember his highlight reel touchdown grabs against Michigan in last season's Rose Bowl-made it unwise for teams to double-cover Williams. Colbert was selected in the NFL's second round.
But there's a host of talented players hoping to fill the void: promising sophomores Steve Smith (17 rec, 319 yds, 18.8 avg, 2 TD in 2003), who was USC's No. 3 wideout last fall, Whitney Lewis (3 rec, 27 yds, 9.0 avg in 2003, plus 3 tcb, 11 yds, 3.7 avg) and Chris McFoy (2 rec, 23 yds, 12.5 avg in 2003), senior Jason Mitchell (2 rec, 27 yds, 13.5 avg in 2003), and juniors Greig Carlson, who was USC's top punt returner last season (21 PR, 188 yds, 9.0 avg in 2003), and one-time cornerback William Buchanon (3 tac, 1 dfl, 1 int in 2003). Walk-ons Wil Smith, a sophomore, and redshirt freshman John Zilka are also available.
Three of the nation's top recruits could make an immediate impact as freshmen (all were prep All-Americans). Fred Davis graduated a semester early from Rogers High in Toledo, Ohio, and enrolled at USC this past spring. Dwayne Jarrett (New Brunswick High in New Brunswick, N.J.) and Derrick Jones (Long Beach Poly High in Long Beach, Calif.) come in this fall.
"The competition in the wide receiver group will be critical," said Carroll. "We lost one of the greatest receivers in USC history and it will be a challenge to replace him. But we have a lot of players fighting for playing time, including some exciting young guys who will be fun to watch."
Senior Gregg Guenther Jr. (17 rec, 167 yds, 9.8 avg, 2 TD in 2003, plus 1 blk FG) became the starter by mid-2003 and performed well. USC's tallest player at 6-8, once football season concludes he changes into a basketball jersey and stars for the Trojan hoopsters. It's possible he'll concentrate solely on basketball in his senior season. Junior Dominique Byrd (14 rec, 268 yds, 19.1 avg, 1 TD in 2003) started the first half of 2003 and was impressive before suffering a season-ending knee injury (he missed 2004 spring drills while recuperating). Senior Alex Holmes, who has 58 career catches, is back after sitting out last fall with a back injury. He started all of 2002 and could win back his job in 2004.
Coming aboard this fall as freshmen are 3 prep All-Americans: former high school teammates Jimmy Miller and Michael Stuart (Westlake High in Westlake Village, Calif.), plus Dale Thompson (Santiago High in Corona, Calif.)
"We have a lot of personnel options at tight end, which is good because we emphasize the position in our offense," said Carroll. "Gregg Guenther and Dominique Byrd were outstanding last season and getting Alex Holmes back really strengthens the position."
Also, junior tackle Winston Justice, who from his right side spot protects Leinart's blind side, was slated to start for his third year and be an All-American candidate. But he was ineligible for this past spring's practice and will not participate in the 2004 season because of a student conduct violation.
Sophomore Fred Matua started most of last season at right guard and brings a defensive lineman's mentality to the offensive front. He likely will start again, as could senior guard John Drake, if he's healthy. After transferring from a junior college, Drake had moved into the lineup by mid-2003, where he split 7 starting assignments between rightside guard and tackle. He proved to be a load at 350 pounds before breaking his ankle late in the year (he missed 2004 spring drills while recuperating).
A new center must emerge, with the candidates coming from sophomore Ryan Kalil, incoming freshman prep All-American Jeff Byers (Loveland High in Loveland, Colo.), who was the national high school player of the year in 2003, and junior walk-on Ross Burruel.
Competing for time at guard are senior Travis Watkins, sophomore walk-on John Lanza, sophomore junior college transfer Alatini Malu (Long Beach City College in Long Beach, Calif.), who enrolled at USC this spring, freshman Travis Draper (originally a 2003 signee, he didn't enroll at USC until this spring), and prep All-American Chilo Rachal (Dominguez High in Compton, Calif.), an incoming freshman who also can play tackle.
In the hunt for the tackle jobs are sophomore Kyle Williams, redshirt freshmen Sam Baker, Drew Radovich and Matt Spanos, plus incoming 370-pound junior Taitusi Lutui (Snow Junior College in Ephraim, Utah), a J.C. All-American. Williams came out of 2004 spring drills as the frontrunner on the right side and Baker was the starter on the left.
"The reconstruction of our offensive line will be critical," said Carroll. "We know we can expect a high level of play out of our experienced returning players. But nobody else has seen significant action at this level yet. So the competition for playing time will be intense. But I was pleased with the line's progress in this past spring's practice."
Six defensive starters return from 2003: end-tackle Shaun Cody, tackle Mike Patterson, linebackers Matt Grootegoed and Lofa Tatupu and safeties Darnell Bing and Jason Leach. Others back with starting experience include cornerbacks Ronald Nunn and Kevin Arbet, linebacker Dallas Sartz, end Frostee Rucker and linebacker Collin Ashton. USC's top 2 tacklers (and 4 of its top 5) return from a 2003 defense that was first nationally in rushing defense (a school-record 60.2), second in turnover margin (+1.5) and tied for 17th in scoring defense (18.4), all Pac-10 bests. It was the third consecutive year that Troy led the league in scoring defense. Opponents averaged just 1.8 yards per carry against the Trojans last fall, a school record and 2003 national low. USC's defense last season posted a national-best 55 sacks, forced 42 turnovers and scored 8 touchdowns (and had 2 safeties). USC has intercepted a pass in 22 of the last 23 games, held 20 of its past 26 opponents to less than 100 rushing yards (and allowed only 1 player to crack the 100-yard rushing barrier in the last 25 contests) and had a stretch of 22 consecutive quarters without allowing a rushing touchdown. The Trojans have done a superb job of getting turnovers under Carroll, as their +1.33 turnover margin and +111 takeaways the past 3 seasons are the best marks in the nation.
"The past 2 years, we were really good on defense and we played just how we drew it up," said Carroll, the team's defensive coordinator. "The challenge is whether we can keep it up. I really like what our returning defensive players bring. There's a lot of leadership in this group. We'll attempt to continue to play defense fast and aggressively, looking to take away the football."
But all is not lost, as 2 starters return...and they're among the nation's best. Both are battled-tested seniors and are All-American nominees after winning All-Pac-10 first team honors last fall. Shaun Cody (26 tac, 10.5 for loss, 6 sack, 1 FF, 1 dfl, 3 blk FG in 2003) will be starting for his fourth year, this year sliding out to end after spending his career at tackle. Nose tackle Mike Patterson (55 tac, 13.5 for loss, 7 sack, 3 FR with 1 for a TD in 2003), who last fall had the most tackles for a loss of any Trojan tackle since 1996, will be starting for his third season. Both have a knack for creating havoc.
Cody's move to end means promising sophomore Manuel Wright (8 tac, 2 for loss, 1 sack, 3 dfl in 2003) will assume his tackle spot. The backup tackles will be junior LaJuan Ramsey (6 tac, 2.5 for loss, 1.5 sack, 1 FF in 2003), who also might work at end, sophomore Travis Tofi (3 tac, 1 for loss, 2 dfl, 1 sack for a safety in 2003), and redshirt freshmen Sedrick Ellis and Ryan Watson. Joining the tackles in the fall as a freshman is prep All-American Lawrence Miles (La Quinta High in La Quinta, Calif.).
A mix of players with experience and youth will contend for both vacant end jobs: junior Frostee Rucker (26 tac, 4 for loss, 1.5 sack, 1 int, 1 dfl, 1 FF, 2 FR in 2003), who started 5 games last year when Nazel was injured, and redshirt freshmen Chris Barrett, Lawrence Jackson and Alex Morrow. A pair of prep All-Americans-Thomas Herring (Fremont High in Los Angeles, Calif.) and Jeff Schweiger (Valley Christian High in San Jose, Calif.)-have a chance to make a contribution as freshmen when they arrive in the fall.
"Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson are the best defensive linemen in college football," said Carroll. "They're both really hard to block and are relentless in how they play the game. We have some talented players among our other ends, but we need some to emerge. I'm really looking forward to watching the competition there and seeing how it shakes out."
Junior middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu (98 tac, 11.5 for loss, 3 sack, 10 dfl, 4 int with 1 for a TD, 1 FF in 2003) returns after making the improbable jump from starting at Maine in 2001 to doing so at USC last fall. He ended up as the Trojans' leading tackler in 2003. Senior Matt Grootegoed (41 tac, 4.5 for loss, 1.5 sack, 1 dfl, 1 FR, 2 FF), who has started the past 3 years at strongside linebacker (he'll be on the weakside in 2004), has a knack for always being around the ball. He's good enough to merit All-American consideration (he was a Butkus Award and Lombardi Award semifinalist last season).
Junior Dallas Sartz (60 tac, 6 for loss, 2 sack, 4 dfl, 1 blk P in 2003) assumes the starting strongside job. He's more than capable, as he started there the last 6 games of 2003 when Grootegoed was bothered by an ankle sprain.
Other possibilities on the outside among the returnees are junior walk-on Collin Ashton (28 tac, 0.5 for loss, 1 FF, 1 dfl in 2003), who performed admirably while starting twice late last year when Simmons was injured, and redshirt freshman Thomas Williams, plus walk-on sophomore Mike Brittingham, who also can play fullback. On the inside, there is senior walk-on Marco Chavez (he sat out 2003 after transferring from Hawaii), plus sophomore Oscar Lua, who was sidelined most of last season because of a knee injury (he missed some of 2004 spring drills while recuperating).
Enrolling this fall is J.C. All-American Ryan Powdrell (Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo, Calif.), who is a junior, and prep All-Americans Keith Rivers (Lake Mary High in Lake Mary, Fla.) and Eugene Germany (Pomona High in Pomona, Calif.), who both are freshmen.
"Linebacker is the great strength of our defense," said Carroll. "With Lofa Tatupu, Matt Grootegoed and Dallas Sartz, it's like we have 3 returning starters. Each of them had very productive seasons last year and we're hoping for more of the same this year. We also have some talented young players who can make a mark."
"Darnell Bing is headed for greatness and Jason Leach does such a solid job back there," said Carroll. "But we need to establish some depth at both safety positions, so some players will have to step forward."
Providing that safety depth will be twin redshirt freshmen Brandon Ting (3 tac in 2003) and Ryan Ting (1 tac in 2003), and senior walk-ons Greg Farr (6 tac in 2003) and Chris Bocage (1 tac in 2003), who missed 2004 spring practice while recovering from a knee injury. Ryan Ting also can play cornerback. Then, enrolling in the fall is J.C. All-American Scott Ware (Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa, Calif.), who is a junior, and prep All-American Josh Pinkard (Hueneme High in Oxnard, Calif.), who is a freshman.
Both of 2003's starting cornerbacks are gone: Will Poole, an All-Pac-10 first teamer and NFL fourth rounder whose 7 interceptions (the most at USC since 1994) and 19 deflections last year ranked him in the top 10 nationally in those categories (he also had 80 tackles, 4 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries), and Marcell Allmond, who helped Troy to an 18-1 record when he started in the secondary (he had 3 picks and 48 stops in 2003).
Losing that duo might not be as much of a concern as it appears, however, because their possible replacements are experienced seniors with plenty of starts under their belts. Ronald Nunn (40 tac, 4 for loss, 3 sack, 1 int for a TD, 4 dfl, 1 FF, 3 FR with 1 for a TD in 2003), known for his big plays, started 3 times in 2002 and played often in extra defensive back formations last year. Kevin Arbet (5 tac, 1 for loss, 1 dfl, 1 FF in 2003, plus 4 PR, 19 yds, 4.8 avg) has 6 career starts. He received a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA because he was out of action for most of the past 2 seasons with a foot injury (he'll miss 2004 spring drills while recuperating). Also a key special teams player, he led the Trojans in punt returns in 2001 with 25 for 225 yards (9.0 average) and earned All-Pac-10 first team honors as a special teamer that season.
Also pushing for playing time at the corner spots will be juniors Justin Wyatt (10 tac in 2003, plus 3 rec, 20 yds, 6.7 avg and 3 KOR, 41 yds, 13.7 avg), who also saw some action at wide receiver last fall, and John Walker (3 tac, 1 dfl in 2003), and redshirt freshmen Eric Wright and Terrell Thomas, plus junior walk-ons Alex Gomez and Justin Tolliver.
"With Ronald Nunn, Kevin Arbet and Justin Wyatt, it's really like we have four returning starters in the secondary," said Carroll. "That's how we're looking at it. But we'll throw open the competition for those two corner spots and see how it unfolds. I think cornerback will be a strong position for us."
Most of USC's specialists from 2003 return, including perhaps the nation's premier punter (Tom Malone) and placekicker (Ryan Killeen), plus an exciting kickoff returner (Reggie Bush), a dependable punt returner (Greig Carlson) and a steady holder (Malone). But a new snapper (for both short and long snaps) must be developed.
The Trojan special teams in 2003 were much-improved from previous years. USC fielded record-setting punt and placekicking squads. Troy led the nation in net punting (43.7 avg.) for the first time ever. The Trojans returned a kickoff for a TD for the first time since 1998. And USC blocked 7 kicks (6 field goals and a punt). But things can still be shored up a bit in 2004, as opponents blocked 4 Trojan kicks (2 punts and 2 PATs) and returned a kickoff for a touchdown last year.
"We've made so much progress on special teams," said Carroll. "Our kicking game, under the expert guidance of coach Dennis Slutak once again, should be very strong. You won't find anyone better than Tom Malone or Ryan Killeen. Both are weapons for us. And we have the potential to be explosive in the return game."
Senior placekicker Ryan Killeen backs up Malone.
Behind him is walk-on redshirt freshman Mario Danelo, the son of ex-NFL kicker Joe Danelo.