Quarterback Brad Otton estimates that during a two-year stint in the early '90s as a Mormon missionary in Italy, he converted one individual. With a sheepish grin he then corrects himself. "Well, that's what I sometimes tell people," he says. "Actually I don't know that I ever converted anyone."
On the football field the fifth-year senior has been far more persuasive. With his rousing 29-for-44, 391-yard performance in the Trojans' 41-32 win over Northwestern in the Rose Bowl, Otton convinced many that he was one of the nation's top quarterbacks. That game came at the end of a sometimes frustrating season in which he split time with Kyle Wachholtz, who has used up his eligibility. Says Otton, "The sad thing was that every time one of us made a mistake, people instinctively thought, (jet the oilier guy in there."
Otton needn't worry anymore; he is the clear-cut starter this season. Whether the Trojans return to Pasadena, however, depends on how quickly the rest of the offense develops. USC is deep at running back. Senior Shawn Walters, who rushed for 976 yards as a sophomore, is serving a yearlong suspension for accepting money from an agent and won't return until the Trojans' fourth game. When he does, he'll have a hard time cracking the starting lineup. Delon Washington, now a junior, filled in last year by rushing for 1,109 yards.
The offensive line, however, is not so deep. Coach John Robinson must replace all five starters from last year. True freshman Travis Claridge may even start in the season opener. The Trojans must also deal with the loss of All-Everything wideout Keyshawn Johnson (102 catches, 1,434 yards in '95), the No. 1 pick in last April's NFL draft. While the returning receiving trio of Chris Miller, Billy Miller and Larry Parker combined for 49 catches and 512 yards last fall, Johnson's brashness and swagger are irreplaceable.
Sophomore cornerback Daylon McCutcheon and tackle Darrell Russell will be counted on to lead the defense. At 6'4" and a shade over 300 pounds, Russell offers a rare combination of strength and speed, and Robinson plans on occasionally moving Russell to rush end in order to exploit his quickness. McCutcheon, who will be used on kick-offs and even on offense at times, is similarly versatile.
The Trojans will be tested early. They begin the season on Aug. 25 against Penn State in the Kickoff Classic and play at much-improved Arizona State on Oct. 19. There are some late tests, too, as the regular season ends with games against UCLA and Notre Dame, which the Trojans have not beaten in six and 14 years, respectively. "Must-win games," says Russell. "We got back to the Rose Bowl last year, but that's only one step. If we don't beat UCLA and Notre Dame, we're going to hear it from our fans about the good old days. To tell you the truth, I'm sick of hearing about the old days."