Posted: Wednesday January 19, 2005 1:32AM; Updated: Saturday January 22, 2005 11:41AM
Shortly after winning the Heisman, Matt Leinart called Mark Sanchez to see how his high school championship game went.
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Mark Sanchez and his family were sitting down to dinner on a Monday night in early December when the phone rang. It was USC coach Pete Carroll, calling from a banquet in New York honoring Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart.
"Matt wants to talk to you," said Carroll, passing the phone.
Two days earlier, on the same Saturday that Leinart won the Heisman, Sanchez, who committed to the Trojans last summer, won his high school championship game.
"I was like, 'Wow, Matt, congratulations on the Heisman, what an honor, you really deserve it,'" said Sanchez. "He says, 'Hey, thanks a lot, but tell me how that championship game went.'
"He's sitting there surrounded by all these former Heisman winners and all he wants to talk about is my little game in Orange County."
While many of the phenoms who participated in last weekend's U.S. Army All-America Bowl in San Antonio seem fixated on being able to play as a freshman, Sanchez, ranked by Scout.com as the nation's top quarterback prospect and No. 2 player overall, was genuinely thrilled by Leinart's decision last week to return for his senior year, even though it means Sanchez probably won't see the field next season.
"He's been a role model for me -- on the field, in the classroom, the way he handles the media," Sanchez said of Leinart. "I'm so happy he made that decision to stay. It gives me a chance to learn for a year from a potential two-time Heisman winner."
Other than the fact he's a righty, not a lefty, many would say Sanchez already has a lot of Leinart in him. A fellow Orange County native with similarly curly hair, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Sanchez is a classically trained drop-back quarterback who's been groomed since youth for this moment. His father, Nick, a former high school quarterback himself, was an assistant trainer for Santa Margarita high school, where Mark served as ballboy and hung around star QBs Carson Palmer and Chris Rix. His older brothers Nick, 32, and Brandon, 25, played for Yale and DePauw, respectively.
Sanchez was always so big for his age, though, that he usually wound up playing fullback or linebacker.
When Mark was just a seventh grader, his father convinced local high school QB guru Bob Johnson to take a look at him as a quarterback. Johnson runs summer camps for the nation's top passing prospects, including the prestigious Elite 11 event, but normally doesn't accept players that young. After watching him that summer, though, Johnson told Sanchez's father, "This is going to happen."
Over the years to follow, Mark and his father spent countless hours at the park or in the backyard practicing the drills they'd picked up from Johnson. After playing two years at Santa Margarita, Mark transferred to Mission Viejo to play for Johnson, where as a junior he completed 75 percent of his passes and over two seasons threw for 56 touchdowns against just eight interceptions.
"He's come a long ways," said Johnson. "The first spring we had him, he was very raw. It wasn't anything for him to throw four, five picks in a practice. Accuracy wise, he's come so far."
Now, his charmed path continues, as Johnson, the high school QB guru, hands him over to college equivalent Norm Chow, USC's acclaimed offensive coordinator whose previous client list includes Ty Detmer, Philip Rivers, Palmer and Leinart.
"They're all cerebral quarterbacks, and that's what I want to be," said Sanchez. "To be mentioned in the same sentence as those guys would be a great honor."
While other quarterback prospects may have more raw ability, Sanchez is as polished as they come in terms of his mechanics and decision-making. What's most striking to observers, though, is his poise and maturity. Sanchez is a 3.7 student who also serves as president of his school's student government and is captain of the basketball team. Much of the credit goes to his brothers, who both still live nearby and, said Nick Sr., "make sure he walks the straight and narrow."
"His family has done a great job with him," said Johnson. "He stays humble."
That humility will come in handy at USC, where Sanchez, for all his accolades, is no lock to take over once Leinart graduates. He'll have to compete with current sophomore John David Booty, who himself was a top-rated QB coming out of high school, and freshman Rocky Hinds. And if Sanchez does win the job, he'll be faced with enormous expectations, what with his two immediate predecessors, Palmer and Leinart, having both won Heismans.
"I don't think it's hit home for him, that he's felt that burden yet," said Nick Sr. "I think he's just looking at it as he's going to have an opportunity to learn from some great people."
Perrilloux's courtship continues
While Sanchez's college plans have been solidly in place since last July, Ryan Perrilloux, the other highly acclaimed quarterback in the class of 2005, continues to build up suspense despite making a verbal commitment to Texas last summer.
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Following a week in San Antonio spent stoking Texas fans' hopes -- flashing the Hook 'em sign in pictures, telling reporters he remains committed -- the Louisiana native spent Monday listening to pitches from both the Longhorns and LSU. According to the Baton Rouge Advocate, the national player of the year had lunch with new Tigers head coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, then had them over for an in-house visit, followed by another visit several hours later from Texas head coach Mack Brown and offensive coordinator Greg Davis.
Perrilloux did at least cut his list of finalists from five to three over the weekend, canceling planned visits to Florida State and Miami. It's down to Texas, Mississippi State, who he was scheduled to visit Wednesday, and LSU, to which he has a Jan. 28 trip planned.
"It's still Texas right now," Perrilloux told The Advocate. "But I'm wanting to see what everybody else has to offer."
Coaches on the move
There's been a flurry of activity within the assistant coaching ranks the past few weeks, and a few of the hires in particular could have a major impact on the teams involved:
Brown may have lost defensive coordinator Greg Robinson to Syracuse after just one season, but he scored a major coup in replacing him with Auburn's Gene Chizik. Under Chizik's guidance, the Tigers led the nation in scoring defense last year (11.3 points per game) despite losing five accomplished starters from the previous season.
Another huge get was Florida's Urban Meyer hiring N.C. State's Doc Holliday as an offensive assistant. Holliday has been recruiting South Florida for 25 years, both at N.C. State and West Virginia before that, and should make similar inroads for the Gators, whose lineup last season included just one player from that talent-rich area.
Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, who had been without an offensive coordinator since Andy Ludwig left for Utah over a month ago, has reportedly landed ex-BYU head coach Gary Crowton. Crowton was the Chicago Bears' coordinator before going to BYU and ran a record-setting offense at Louisiana Tech before that.
New Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy, most of whose potential assistants followed Miles to LSU, was able to lure away Larry Fedora from Illinois, where had had followed his Florida boss Ron Zook just weeks earlier. Fedora, who will be the Cowboys' offensive coordinator, is known as a strong recruiter.
Finally, Georgia was dealt a blow when defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder left to become linebackers coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Bulldogs' defense, which also lost stars Thomas Davis and Odell Thurman to the NFL draft, finished in the top 15 nationally each of the past three seasons. Head coach Mark Richt promoted secondary coach Willie Martinez.
Tennessee is well on its way to securing the nation's top recruiting class. In addition to commitments from three players in San Antonio, Eugene Hayes, Scout.com's No. 2-ranked linebacker, pledged his services during an official visit over the weekend, giving the Vols eight top 100 prospects. ... Orgeron's recruiting prowess at USC already has followed him to Ole Miss, where the new head coach landed a big commitment Monday from Memphis' Michael Oher, Scout.com's No. 5 offensive lineman. His next target: In-state CB Derek Pegues, who shut down some of the nation's top receivers in last weekend's All-America Bowl. ... Miami is scrambling to sign a quarterback after Californian Derek Shaw reneged on his commitment to stay closer to home at Arizona State. The 'Canes only have two scholarship QBs returning, Kyle Wright and Kirby Freeman. Their best hope is in-state prospect Carlton Hill, who previously committed to USF but will visit Miami this weekend. ... In a sign of his potentially low draft stock, 2003 Heisman winner Jason White is not among the seven quarterbacks who have been named to the roster for the Jan. 29 Senior Bowl. They are: Akron's Charlie Frye, UConn's Dan Orlovsky, Purdue's Kyle Orton, Auburn's Jason Campbell, Georgia's David Greene, Arizona State's Andrew Walter and Arkansas' Matt Jones.