USC 2003 Football Outlook
Aug. 18, 2003
Overview: The 2002 football season at USC: An 11-2 record against the nation's toughest schedule, including winning its last eight games, culminated by dismantling Iowa in the FedEx Orange Bowl; a final national ranking of No. 4, with many observers feeling SC was the best team in the country when the dust settled; the highest win total and final ranking since 1979; a Pac-10 co-championship; a Heisman Trophy; Pac-10 stat leaders in scoring offense and scoring defense, total offense and total defense. Is there any doubt that USC football is back? And much of that 2002 squad returns, with the notable exception of the Heisman Trophy winning quarterback. As usual, the schedule is difficult for USC, especially on the road, with the Trojans planning trips to Auburn, Notre Dame, Washington and Arizona State.
Offense: In winning its last eight games, USC's lowest point total was 30 points and the Trojans ended up leading the Pac-10 and among the national leaders at 35.8 points and 449.2 yards per game. That offense returns almost the entire line and a pair of top-flight receivers, but must come up with new performers in the backfield. The huge hole to fill is that left by departed Heisman winning QB Carson Palmer, the Pac-10 career passing and total offense leader. Four quarterbacks went into spring ball competing for the starting job with Matt Leinart coming out of it with a slim, slim, slim edge over Matt Cassel, Brandon Hance and Billy Hart. This battle should carry on right into the season-opener at Auburn. The Trojans also lost a passel of experienced running backs in Justin Fargas, Sultan McCullough and Malaefou MacKenzie. Soph Hershel Dennis will be the featured tailback with a touted class of incoming freshmen having to step in and back him up. Fellow soph Brandon Hancock is the leading candidate at fullback. Whoever ends up at quarterback will have a pair of dynamic targets, as the Trojans return not one, but two 1,000-yard receivers. Mike Williams earned Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors last season after leading USC with 81 receptions for 1,265 yards (15.6) and 14 TDs. Underrated senior Keary Colbert added 71 catches for 1,029 yards (14.5) and five TDs. Both were awarded second-team All-Pac-10 honors. Justin Wyatt moves over from defense and will add speed at wideout. Also back is solid tight end Alex Holmes. USC boasts its most experienced offensive line in years with four-plus starters back. The tackles are outstanding in All-Pac-10 selection Jacob Rogers and young Winston Justice, who stepped in as a frosh starter last year and earned Freshman All-America honors. Veteran Norm Katnik is back at center, Lenny Vandermade at guard and versatile Eric Torres is back to fill in wherever needed. Fred Matua will be looking to crack the starting lineup at guard.
Defense: The Trojans have led the Pac-10 in scoring defense the last two years (coinciding with coach Pete Carroll's arrival) and once again will field a formidable unit. The front seven should be particularly daunting as SC fields perhaps the nation's best defensive line. Three starters are back on the line, not counting stellar tackle Shaun Cody, a starter for the first half of the season before being hit with a knee injury. End Kenechi Udeze and tackle Mike Patterson were both second-team all-league last year. End Omar Nazel rounds out the foursome, all of whom could be in line for post-season honors. The outside linebacker posts are in good hands with returnees Matt Grootegoed and Melvin Simmons. The group of Oscar Lua, Lofa Tatupu and Daniel Urquhart should pan out at middle backer. The secondary did lose three starters, including All-America safety Troy Polamalu. Marcell Almond, Kevin Arbet, William Buchanon and Ronald Nunn all have varying degrees of starting experience at cornerback. Darnell Bing and Mike Ross will compete for Polamalu's strong safety position, and Jason Leach will get first look at free safety.
Kicking Game: USC's kicking was much improved last year, although the Trojans were not completely satisfied with other aspects of their special teams. Ryan Killeen connected on 16-of-23 field goal attempts and punter Tom Malone averaged 42.1 yards as a freshman last year.