It was sad, really. Your heart went out to the defending national champions. Wasn't there a help line they could call?
As if losing five defensive starters (four of them All-Americas) following the Orange Bowl rout of Oklahoma wasn't enough, USC was buffeted by the departures of four assistant coaches, including offensive coordinator Norm Chow, from whose fevered imagination had sprung many of the big plays that fueled the Trojans' back-to-back national titles. That was followed by Wright flight: After Los Angeles police found 136 Ecstasy pills in starting cornerback Eric Wright's apartment, he left school before the university could expel him (all charges were dropped), and backup defensive tackle Manuel Wright left school for academic reasons and entered the NFL's supplemental draft. Manny next gained national attention early in Miami Dolphins training camp when, after getting chewed out by coach Nick Saban, he broke down crying.
Have the Trojans similarly been reduced to tears? Will this exodus of talent put the three-Pete out of reach? SI would have posed that question to Pete Carroll on a recent visit to campus, but USC's fifth-year coach was zipping around on a Segway borrowed from university security that day, a manic grin on his face.
"A 10-year-old" was how quarterback Matt Leinart described his coach. The return of Leinart, the Heisman winner with the golden left arm, is one of the biggest reasons no one at USC seems overly concerned about all the missing persons. Leinart has gotten over the loss of his guru, Chow, whose coordinator title was bestowed on receivers coach Lane Kiffin. As under Chow, the offensive calls will originate with Kiffin, be reviewed by quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian and relayed to Carroll, who will have veto power, before reaching Leinart. Yet Chow's loss is not likely to be felt until next season. That's because Leinart, a fifth-year senior, could call the plays himself, or have them signaled in by close friend Jessica Simpson, and the team would still average 40 points a game. Is there a more loaded college offense? Leinart will be handing off to fellow Heisman candidate Reggie Bush and to LenDale White, whom one Pac-10 coach calls "a better pure running back [than Bush], a big, strong physical guy who sees the creases and has great vision."
When he goes to the air, Leinart will have little trouble finding 6'5" sophomore Dwayne Jarrett, last seen running down a 54-yard touchdown bomb in the Orange Bowl. Jarrett's emergence last season eased--rendered painless, in fact--the loss of Mike Williams (who was ineligible because of his failed bid to enter the NFL draft as a sophomore; he's now with the Detroit Lions). And Jarrett wasn't even the best USC wideout against Oklahoma. That distinction belonged to Steve Smith, who caught three touchdown passes, one of them a diving, one-handed grab while being mugged by a Sooners defender. And that wasn't even the best USC one-handed touchdown catch that night. That honor went to tight end Dominique Byrd, who leaped to spear a 33-yard scoring pass in the first quarter. All three of those guys are back, as is reserve wideout Whitney Lewis, who's coming off a sizzling spring but will be pushed by Patrick Turner, a 6'5" freshman who has more speed than Jarrett.
The offensive line has four starters back, and the fifth isn't a novice. After being suspended for the 2004 season because he brandished a fake gun at some students, Winston Justice returned in the spring and reclaimed his right tackle spot from 370-pound Taitusi (Deuce) Lutui. Deuce moves to left guard, a position weakened by the loss of sophomore Jeff Byers, who likely will miss this season because his hip didn't heal properly following off-season surgery.
But the bad news came mostly on defense. In addition to Manny Wright, the line suffered the losses of position coach Ed Orgeron, now the head man at Ole Miss, plus Mike Patterson and Shaun Cody, who were selected in the first and second rounds of the NFL draft, respectively. The defense is guaranteed to be softer up front than it was last season, and opposing quarterbacks may find they have more time to look for a receiver. But even with the loss of Eric Wright, there are plenty of talented newcomers to shore up the secondary, foremost among them freshman safety Kevin Ellison. Carroll has put 40 true freshmen on the field over the last three seasons, and look how that's hurt the Trojans.
What this all means is that USC will be more vulnerable early in the season rather than late, and it's more likely to win by 14 points instead of 28. The Sept. 3 opener at Hawaii was looking like a scary game until ESPN moved the kickoff to midafternoon, stripping the Rainbow Warriors, who are 33--13 under the Aloha Stadium lights since 1999, of their nocturnal juju.
The Trojans had a rough off-season in 2004 as well--with Williams and Justice ineligible and a similar exodus to the NFL--but there they were on Jan. 4, planting kisses on the crystal football atop the national championship trophy. You get the sense that Carroll doesn't mind the upheaval, which has the effect of focusing his team and warding off complacency. As the coach buzzed past on the Segway, a reporter yelled, "Grow up!"
Without missing a beat or taking his eyes from his path, Carroll replied, "Why would I want to do that?" -- Austin Murphy