Sanchez expected to continue USC's long line of excellence at QB (cont.)
Those around the program say that poise wasn't always there. The Mission Viejo, Calif., native has had his father, Nick, and brothers Nick Jr. (a former Yale QB) and Brandon (DePauw) -- all of them near-daily fixtures at practice -- watching over him. With the help local QB guru Bob Johnson, they've been grooming Sanchez for this moment since he was a child, back when he served as a ballboy during Palmer's high-school games in Orange County.
To say he's felt pressure is an understatement.
"There's been times this spring when Mark played like this next pass was going to determine whether he was the starter," said Sarkisian. "He finally relaxed and got out of that. He's making plays and showing good confidence."
Sanchez still occasionally forces throws he shouldn't, and some observers say his low elbow drop and wide stance may cause problems seeing over some defenders. He boasts a cannon arm, however, and his accuracy has improved immensely over the past three years.
"That's what ultimately makes a good quarterback a great quarterback; whether you're a 58-percent guy or a 68-percent guy," said Sarkisian. "I think he has the ability to be a 68-percent guy."
Thrown into the fire last season at a time when the Trojans' offensive line was depleted with injuries, Sanchez performed admirably, though not spectacularly. His 25-yard fourth quarter touchdown pass saved the Trojans from potential disaster against Arizona, and he torched hapless Notre Dame for 235 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. In his biggest test, at No. 5 Oregon, USC was behind 24-10 when Sanchez led an 85-yard touchdown drive with 4:44 left, but his potential game-tying drive in the final seconds ended with an interception.
"I was so fortunate to [experience] some unique situations," said Sanchez. "Getting picked off to lose the game at Oregon -- that's a tough thing for a young quarterback to swallow at the time -- but now I feel so much more experienced for it."
USC is also banking on several young offensive linemen who gained similar experience last season due to the Trojans' glut of injuries. ("There was one day when six offensive linemen returned to practice," said Carroll.) With only one starter, left guard Jeff Byers, back from last year's line, sophomores Butch Lewis (left tackle) Kris O'Dowd (center) and Zack Herberer (right guard) will be under the gun just like Sanchez.
Their success will be critical if the Trojans hope to get the most out of their increasingly dazzling tailback stable. Sophomores C.J. Gable and Joe McKnight and juniors Allen Bradford and Stafon Johnson have all been explosive (though McKnight missed the past week with academic issues).
Another group that has shown considerable improvement this spring is the receivers. After losing veteran standouts Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith in 2006, USC struggled to find a single consistent wideout last season, with now-departed tight end Fred Davis finishing as the Trojans' leading receiver. Turner, a senior, remains the anticipated leader, but junior Hazelton and sophomores Johnson, David Ausberry and Damian Williams (Mustain's former Arkansas and Springdale High teammate) have impressed the coaches.
"We've got to get back to the receiver tradition of making big plays," said Hazelton. "No excuses this year."
With stalwarts like Maualuga, Cushing and safeties Taylor Mays and Kevin Ellison, there's little question USC will field another dominant defense. (The lone question mark is at tackle, since All-America Sedrick Ellis departed). The difference between whether the Trojans will post another "pedestrian" 11-win season or return to the BCS championship game for the first time in three years will come down to whether Sanchez and the other offensive youngsters can make the leap from backups to breakout stars.
For Sanchez, the opportunity can't come soon enough.
"It's kind of like you're coming up this mountain," he said. "I've been going on the upslope for three years, some parts steeper than others, then you start to see the top and, 'Bam' -- now I'm there.
"It's the same expectations as always here. Now it's just my turn -- our turn."