There's no competition: Sanchez is easily USC's best quarterback
The moment Mark Sanchez cemented himself as USC's starting quarterback this season didn't come when he led the team to a fourth-quarter comeback win over Arizona last season in his first career start. It didn't come when he threw four touchdowns passes and no interceptions in a 38-0 rout of Notre Dame in South Bend. It didn't even come this spring when coach Pete Carroll named him the starter in April, leading to No. 6 jerseys being printed and sold in the campus bookstore.
It came after he dislocated his kneecap on Aug. 9, sidelining him for nearly two weeks.
It happened as he relaxed inside a golf cart and watched Mitch Mustain throw one mind-boggling interception after another in practices. As he sat on the bench and watched Aaron Corp struggle to hit open receivers and run out of the pocket the moment he felt pressured. As he stood on the sidelines and watched Garrett Green play as well as a quarterback turned safety turned wide receiver who was asked to turn into a quarterback again could.
It was then that USC fans, and maybe even some of its players, began to realize what USC coaches have known all along. This supposed quarterback competition was never much of a competition at all.
Sanchez is USC's best quarterback and it isn't even close.
That the gap is as wide as it is may come as a surprise to those that figured Mustain, who went 8-0 as the starting quarterback at Arkansas as a freshman in 2006, would win the job after proving his mettle in the SEC with back-to-back wins over ranked Alabama and Auburn, the latter coming on the road.
The realization that Mustain's Arkansas credentials meant nothing at USC came fairly quickly for the quarterback after he reviewed the Trojans' telephone-book-sized playbook. His transition is basically the equivalent of an award-winning cook at the Whole Hog Café taking a job as a sushi chef at Katsuya. He's literally starting from scratch with no carryover.
"Completely different," said Mustain when asked to compare what he did at Arkansas to USC. "It's not even close. What we ran at Arkansas was hybrid of a couple different things, we really didn't have a solid philosophy where as here we have a solid philosophy that we follow and everything we do is based off of that. We have everything set around a core. We didn't have that at Arkansas, everything was pretty scattered."
Learning USC's pro style, timing-based offense can often be like learning how to tango. You will invariably stumble and look like you're moving with two left feet as you count your steps but once it becomes second nature, it's a thing of beauty.
"We do a variety of different personnel groupings and have a variety of different concepts, not only in the run game but in the pass game and the quarterback in our system is responsible for a lot of things," said offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. "They have responsibilities in the run game and the pass game and the recognition of coverages is big because so much of our passing is timing oriented. If you struggle to recognize coverages, it's going to take time, but once you get it, it becomes second nature and you can just go out there and play."
It's a playbook that has taken all of its starting quarterbacks about two years to master. Even Carson Palmer, who had to learn it on the fly as a junior during Carroll's first season at USC, didn't break out of his mistake-prone underachieving shell and into a Hesiman winner until the end of his second season. Matt Leinart spent two years as Palmer's backup, John David Booty spent three years as Leinart's backup and outside of three starts last season, Sanchez spent three years behind both Leinart and Booty waiting for his opportunity to be the starter.
"From Leinart to J.D. to now Mark and even with Carson, it wasn't until the end of his second year that he really exploded. It takes time," said Sarkisian, who believed since spring practices that Sanchez gives the team the best chance to win. "We've said that all along. We try to push these guys as far as we can push them as quickly as we can but invariably it takes time."