Near the end of the first half against Oregon early last season, Southern Cal quarterback Carson Palmer took off on an ill-advised scramble that left him with a broken collarbone—and the Trojans with a shattered season. Completing 73.6% of his passes, Palmer had led the Trojans to victories in their first two games, but with the sophomore sidelined for the rest of the season, they would lose that third game to the Ducks and then drop five of their next six.
With a body (6'5", 220 pounds) built for the NFL, and great passing ability, Palmer, in 1998, had become the second true freshman in school history to start at quarterback, and USC went 8-5. But Palmer approached the position with a laid-back attitude reflective of his surfer-dude upbringing in Orange County, preferring on-field improvisation to preparation. That all changed last fall when he was forced to break down film and help prepare each week's game plan. Such immersion in the complicated West Coast offense had never occurred to him during his whirlwind freshman season. " Carson played only 2� games last year, but his development has been staggering," says coach Paul Hackett.
Palmer's maturation is just one of the enticing developments at USC. The Trojans boast one of the best defenses in the country and retain 10 starters from a playmaking unit that led the nation in takeaways (39) while also scoring eight touchdowns. Southern Cal has a formidable linebacking duo in seniors Zeke Moreno (team-high 108 tackles) and Markus Steele (team-leading 15 tackles for losses).
The offense has a few question marks, beginning at tailback. With 1,000-yard rusher Chad Morton now with the New Orleans Saints, Hackett plans to go with a tailback-by-committee, using 215-pound bruiser Malaefou MacKenzie, speedy Sultan McCullough and Petros Papadakis, a short-yardage specialist. The receiving corps is led by sophomore Kareem Kelly, the Pac-10 freshman of the year in '99.
As for Palmer, who was granted a red-shirt year, he's learned from his mistakes and has developed a new strategy. "Next time," he says, "I'll go out-of-bounds."