ONE MEASLY MINUTE
WAS ALL THAT SEPARATED USC FROM A TRIP TO the Orange Bowl. The Trojans had the
ball on UCLA's 15-yard line. With one more first down USC would be
Florida-bound. Instead Reggie Bush fumbled, leaving the Bruins one last
instructive to watch USC's offense come off the field following that miscue.
What was striking, though, was not how concerned the Trojans seemed-- UCLA
quarterback Drew Olson was intercepted on the next play: Game over, book your
flight to Florida--but how young. There was true freshman Jeff Byers, who'd
played much of the game at left guard, next to starting left tackle Sam Baker,
a redshirt freshman whose good buddy Kyle Williams, a redshirt sophomore, had
played half the game at right tackle. There was Dwayne Jarrett, a true freshman
wideout who'd had a busy fall, what with turning 18, conquering homesickness
and a case of the drops before emerging as USC's most dangerous receiving
treat. There was true sophomore and future NFLer Bush, who splits carries with
true sophomore and future NFLer LenDale White and would be named the team's MVP
despite sharing the backfield with the winner of the Heisman Trophy.
Not only was this
team loaded, it was loaded with youth, in keeping with one of Pete Carroll's
primary coaching tenets. Carroll doesn't care what year you were born: If you
can help him win, you'll be on the field. This philosophy was on display during
the 2004 season, during which 10 true freshmen saw significant playing time,
and it was on display in Heritage Hall last February as Carroll stood before
his team and expressed his gratitude. National letter-of-intent day, on which
the sun had set some 72 hours earlier, had been very, very good to USC. The
coach thanked his players for their help in hosting recruits and selling the
program. Now, for their viewing pleasure, a highlight tape had been assembled.
"These are the guys you helped us recruit," said Carroll, "and
these are the guys who are going to help us win."
dimmed, and across the screen splashed the ultrabright future of an already
There, on a
pea-green rug against a hapless team in red, was Derrick Jones of Long Beach
( Calif.) Poly High, fielding a kickoff, then devouring yardage in impossibly
long strides on his way to six points. Next came Paul Bunyan, turning the
corner and laying waste to the secondary. Beg your pardon--that was Byers, from
Loveland ( Colo.) High, pulling from his center position, scattering bodies like
tenpins. He was followed by linebacker Keith Rivers, from Lake Mary, Fla.,
flying to the ball as if bound by the physics of some other universe. Pity, in
a later clip, the left tackle asked to contain Jeff Schweiger, a defensive end
who had 18 sacks for San Jose's Valley Christian High the previous season.
Why make the
players sit through this preview of coming attractions? Part of the reason was
that Carroll wanted to get them thinking. "The message was: Here they
come," says receivers coach Lane Kiffin. "You better be ready, 'cause
these guys are coming to take your spot."
It was no idle
threat. "We're hoping we get surprised by [an incoming freshman] who can
just knock someone out of their starting position," says Carroll. "Just
take it." Since his arrival in Los Angeles, after the 1999 season, Carroll
has displayed an open-mindedness that has not always been a hallmark of his
profession. It has long been gospel among football coaches that youth, in
excess, will get you beat.
Maybe you just
need to find the right youths.
for the second time in two years, Carroll & Co. reaped the richest harvest
of blue chips in the land. "Their recruiting under Carroll has been
phenomenal," says Allen Wallace, national recruiting editor for Scout.com,
which ranked the Trojans first each of the past two years and seventh the year
before that-- Carroll's first at the school.
In addition to
locking down California, Southern Cal has expanded its reach eastward, as the
presence of wide receiver- tight end Fred Davis, Byers and Rivers makes clear.
And the list goes on. After becoming friends early in the recruiting process,
Byers and Rivers joined forces, working the phones to get other studs to follow
in their footsteps. Then, at the Army All-American Bowl, an all-star game in
San Antonio in early January, "Keith and I basically tag-teamed everybody
down there," says Byers. "We said 'Hey, we're gonna get these guys no
matter what.' Jeff Schweiger, Fred Davis, Dwayne Jarrett. We just hit 'em, and
we hit 'em hard."