Sanchez expected to continue USC's long line of excellence at QB
LOS ANGELES -- The calendar may say mid-April, but watching USC go through one of its "Competition Tuesday" practices might lead a spectator to think it's already the fourth quarter of the Trojans' Sept. 13 showdown with Ohio State.
As is coach Pete Carroll's custom, the offense and defense are staging a full-throttle, no-holds-barred scrimmage where only the quarterbacks are safe from a potentially vicious hit. On this day, linebacker Rey Maualuga crushes receiver Ronald Johnson so loudly as to send a collective "Oooooh" reverberating across the field. Linebacker Jordan Campbell does the same to two other ball-carriers.
All the while, amped-up players from both sides are jawing at each other so mercilessly ("You know who you're talking to?" linebacker Brian Cushing bellows at receiver Patrick Johnson after one play) one might think a full-on brawl is going to erupt at any moment -- just the way the coaches like it. Adding to the atmosphere, a couple hundred spectators line three sides of the field, including former Trojans coach John Robinson, baseball agent Scott Boras, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti and TV analyst Craig James.
"I'm the biggest believer that this is the most hostile environment a quarterback can get faced with," says Trojans offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. "If a quarterback can function on this field, I feel really good about him on a Saturday afternoon.
Earlier that afternoon, Carroll and Sarkisian decreed that fourth-year junior Mark Sanchez had performed impressively enough in that environment to officially earn the Trojans' starting job, and on this day, Sanchez clearly looks like a No. 1 guy both in performance and demeanor. With the pocket collapsing around him on one play, Sanchez laces a throw to Vidal Hazelton across the middle, eliciting a roar from coaches and teammates behind him and causing the ever-excitable Carroll to start racing down the field while marking a first-down signal. (Everyone runs at USC practices, even the guys holding the down-and-distance chains).
When it's time for one of his fellow quarterbacks, Mitch Mustain or Aaron Corp, to take their reps, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Sanchez is the most vocal cheerleader on the sideline. "C'mon Garrett, let's see what you got," he shouts to backup receiver Garrett Green just before a snap. All the while, he sports a mile-wide smile, high-fiving and joking with teammates.
"I think I have a natural ability to lead and I've been around so long that I know exactly what to do," Sanchez says with a certain confidence. "It doesn't feel like anything different for me, it's just my chance to actually do it. I watched Matt [Leinart] do it, I watched JD [John David Booty] do it and now it's me. It feels good."
Sanchez's ascendance marks the beginning of another era for Carroll's thus-far machine-like program. With seemingly seamless ease, the torch has passed over the years from Carson Palmer (2001-02) to Leinart ('03-'05) to Booty ('06-'07) and now to Sanchez. The previous three combined to lead the Trojans to six consecutive BCS bowls and AP top-four finishes.
"There's never been a doubt with our guys whether they'll be a big time quarterback; the question is whether they continue to happen in the order they're here," said Carroll. "We gave Mark a lot of chances to catch up to [Booty] and he couldn't do it. That's where we are now -- Mark is ahead of the other guys."
Sanchez was dealt perhaps the stiffest competition to date with the arrival last year of touted transfer Mustain, who, like Sanchez a year earlier, was the top quarterback in the nation coming out of high school in 2006. He started eight games as a true freshman for Arkansas. Carroll insists that Sanchez's status as starter will remain safe only until fall camp, when the competition will continue. Said Mustain: "I'm not going to quit and title myself the backup. I'm going to keep fighting for it and awaiting my opportunity."
The two have performed similarly in scrimmages, but Sanchez's considerable head start learning the Trojans' offense (Mustain did not arrive in time for last year's spring practices and mostly ran opposing teams' offenses on the scout team last fall) and the three starts he made last fall when Booty was injured put him in the driver's seat from the beginning. His poise in practices during the week leading up to the announcement sealed the deal for the coaches.
"It's not just about the quarterback, it's how efficient we are as an offense," said Sarkisian. "Right now we're the most efficient team with [Sanchez] at quarterback."