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21. USC

This season will determine whether the five-year investment in a potentially perfect quarterback pays off

By Albert Chen


Palmer has been the Trojans' starter forever, but for all his gaudy stats he has yet to haul USC back to the glory days. Peter Read Miller
Enemy Lines
An opposing coach's view of the Trojans

"We'll have to wait and see if quarterback Carson Palmer is a winner, but you can count on receiver Kareem Kelly 's having an outstanding season.... The defensive front doesn't have a lot of experience, but tackle Shaun Cody and end Kenechi Udeze are reliable.... They have an outstanding leader in safety Troy Polamalu , who's always around the ball.... The team crumbled in recent years, and the kids stopped believing in their coaches. It seems they have started to believe in coach Pete Carroll ."

Sports Illustrated Trojans fans, take heart. Carson Palmer says he has finally grown up. The senior quarterback, blessed with a cannon of a right arm and a 6'6", 235-pound body fit for the NFL, has the natural tools to make pro scouts drool. But since leading USC to an 8-5 record in 1998 as only the second true freshman in school history to start at quarterback, the mellow Orange County native has been maddeningly underachieving.

In the following three seasons (he redshirted after injuring his shoulder in '99) Palmer played erratically, throwing for more interceptions (33) than touchdowns (32). "I never realized how hard I had to work," he says. This off-season Palmer has spent more time in the weight room (he's bulked up 15 pounds) and watched more tape than ever.

Palmer is finally ready to live up to his billing and will have his best supporting cast yet. Eight starters return on offense, including senior wide receiver Kareem Kelly (801 yards), who's on the verge of setting school records for career receptions and receiving yards. Even the running game, which averaged a Pac-10-worst 95.5 yards, looks strong with the addition of senior Michigan transfer Justin Fargas.

The defense features All-America strong safety Troy Polamalu (118 tackles, 13 for loss), but with only five returning starters it's coach Pete Carroll's biggest concern. "We will be challenged right away," says Carroll, alluding to the Trojans' schedule, which kicks off with nonconference games against Auburn, Colorado and Kansas State. To get through the brutal slate, USC will count on a big year from its hungry-to-succeed quarterback. "I haven't accomplished nearly what I expected to," Palmer says. "This is my last chance, and I've never felt better and more ready."

Issue date: August 12, 2002