USC Football Team Begins 2003 Spring Practice
March 3, 2003
LOS ANGELES - The USC football team will begin spring football drills on Tuesday, March 4 (the 15 sessions will run through April 5), but don't expect Troy to put a 'what-can-we-do-for-an-encore?' spin on the 2003 season.
Despite the success of 2002, third-year head coach Pete Carroll knows a bright future is not a given.
'It's a long, hard road to play at a top-notch level year in and year out,' said Carroll, who directed the 2002 Trojans to an 11-2 record, a No. 4 final ranking, a share of the Pac-10 championship (going 7-1), decisive wins over traditional rivals UCLA and Notre Dame and an impressive victory in the BCS' Orange Bowl...all while playing the nation's toughest schedule.
'It feels like we're just getting started. We're building a championship program here and 2002 was just the start. Our goal every year is to win the Pac-10 title and win the Rose Bowl.'
Indeed, 2002 was a season of superlatives for Troy, which accomplished all this despite several starters missing significant parts of the season because of injuries. It was USC's most wins since 1979, its highest final ranking since 1979 and its most points (465) and touchdowns (60) since 1972. It was the first time since 1981 that USC beat the Bruins and Irish in the same season (and the first time in back-to-back games since 1978). The Trojans finished in the nation's Top 20 in nearly every team statistical category, and led the Pac-10 in total offense and defense and in scoring offense and defense. USC produced 2 All-American first teamers, including its first Heisman Trophy winner since 1981, and a pair of Freshman All-American first teamers.
USC enters 2003 riding an 8-game winning streak (and a 9-game home winning streak). But Carroll realizes the success of 2002 is not guaranteed this year.
'We have to keep last season in perspective,' said Carroll, a National Coach of the Year finalist in 2002 who has won 15 of his last 18 games at USC (including a 7-0 mark in November contests). 'We have to remember it's just one season. And it was the first very successful season at USC in a while. So, it's too early yet to say USC has arrived.
'With new leadership and new players this year, we need to rediscover our attitude about how to compete. I want this 2003 team to play the best it can play. And that goes back to how hard we work and how we focus and how we compete.
'We have to find that high level again, and it's not automatic. I won't allow our team to think that we already have it. We have to earn it again.
'It's real important to put the parts back together with the players we have coming back.'
USC will call upon starters returning at 14 positions (6 on offense, 6 on defense and both kickers). In all, 76 squadmen return, including 56 who saw playing time in 2003 (49 were lettermen and 26 were on the season-ending 2-deep). Some 22 Trojans have started at least once in their career.
Joining them will be 27 new players who comprise what some publications have ranked as the nation's premier recruiting class of 2003. Three high school All-Americans already are enrolled at USC and will participate in spring drills, while the other 24 newcomers (including 18 who were prep and junior college All-Americans in 2002) will begin in the fall.
'The players in this recruiting class all chose USC because they want to do great things,' said Carroll, who played 12 first-year freshmen and 2 transfers last fall. 'That's exciting for the coaches, the returning players and the fans.'
And USC seems to have a particular attraction to Carroll, too.
'I plan on being here for a long time because I can't find a better job description than this,' said Carroll. 'It's perfect. It's really clear that this is a great setting to work in and I love being here.'
Carroll plans to continue the offensive and defensive approach that USC exhibited in his first 2 seasons.
'We want to control the ball on offense and go get it on defense,' he said. 'That has become my fundamental approach to the game. It was the first thing I ever said to our players and we'll continue to try to build on that approach.'
In fact, USC's +1.33 turnover margin the past 2 regular seasons is the best in the nation during that span. Under Carroll, Troy has 71 takeaways while giving the ball away only 37 times.
If the foundation of a team's success is the strength of its lines, then Troy figures to be in good shape in 2003. Both its offensive and defensive fronts return nearly intact.
The USC defense will feature an imposing line and veteran outside linebackers, but the secondary and middle linebacker will have some new faces.
Three starters return on a defensive line that is America's best: ends Kenechi Udeze (a 2-year starter who had 44 tackles, 16 for loss, 7.5 sacks, a Pac-10 high and USC record 6 forced fumbles in 2002) and Omar Nazel (38 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 6.5 sacks last fall) and tackle Mike Patterson (37 tackles, 11.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks, Pac-10 high 4 fumble recoveries in 2002). Joining them at tackle is Shaun Cody, a 2001 Freshman All-American who started the first 6 games of 2002 before tearing knee ligaments.
Two-year starting strongside linebacker Matt Grootegoed-USC's 2002 leader in tackles (81), tackles for a loss (16.5) and sacks (8) while earning All-Pac-10 first team acclaim-is back, as is weakside linebacker Melvin Simmons (71 tackles in 2002).
Former starting wide receiver Marcell Allmond (34 tackles, 6 deflections, 1 interception last year) is USC's only returning starter in the secondary, where he started the last 7 games of 2002 at cornerback.
But 4 other players have started at times in the secondary: safety Jason Leach (2 starts at strong safety in 2002, when he had a team-high 4 interceptions), plus cornerbacks Kevin Arbet (he missed all of 2002 with a broken foot after getting 4 starts in 2000 and earning All-Pac-10 first team honors in 2001 as a special teams player), Ronald Nunn (he started USC's first 3 games of 2002 before tearing knee ligaments) and William Buchanon (he started for Nunn in the next 3 games of 2002).
USC lost some key starters on defense: 2-time All-American strong safety Troy Polamalu, the 2002 Thorpe Award finalist who was a 3-year starter with 278 tackles, 6 interceptions (3 for TDs) and 4 blocked kicks in his career, 2-year starting middle linebacker Mike Pollard (49 tackles in 2002), free safety DeShaun Hill (54 tackles and a team-best 8 deflections in 2002), cornerback Darrell Rideaux (46 tackles, 7 deflections, 2 interceptions in 2002) and tackle Bernard Riley, who had 19 career starts, including the last 7 games of 2002.
The Trojan offense should be dominant up front and among the receivers, but the entire backfield must be rebuilt.
Starters return at 4 spots on the offensive line, led by tackles Jacob Rogers (a 2-year starter and a 2002 All-Pac-10 first teamer) and Winston Justice (a 2002 Freshman All-American first team pick), center Norm Katnik (another 2-year starter) and a pair of players who started more than half of 2002: guard Lenny Vandermade (a 3-year starter) and tackle Eric Torres (a 2-year starter who started at every position but center in 2002). Rogers and Justice make up the nation's top bookend tackles.
The other offensive starters back are 3-year starting wide receiver Keary Colbert, who had 71 catches for 1,029 yards last fall and is USC's No. 6 career receiver (he could break the record this year), and sure-handed tight end Alex Holmes, who has 58 career receptions.
Another key offensive player returning is dynamic wide receiver Mike Williams, a 2002 Freshman All-American first team honoree who set NCAA freshman records for catches (81), receiving yards (1,265) and receiving touchdowns (14). He and Colbert form the nation's top receiving duo.
But it will be difficult to offset the loss of such offensive stars as Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Carson Palmer, the Pac-10's career passing and total offense leader who set 32 Pac-10 and USC records, tailbacks Justin Fargas (who ran for 715 yards while starting 5 times in 2002), Sultan McCullough (USC's No. 8 career rusher with 2,800 yards, including a team-high 814 in 2002 while starting 5 games) and Malaefou MacKenzie (who ran for 939 yards and caught 76 passes in his career, and who started the last 7 games of 2002 at fullback), wide receiver Kareem Kelly (USC's career reception leader with 204 and the NCAA recordholder for consecutive games with a catch at 47), and 4-year starting offensive guard Zach Wilson.
Both the punter (Tom Malone) and placekicker (Ryan Killeen) return and show promise. Malone, who averaged 42.1 yards per boot last fall, might be the best young punter in the nation. Killeen, who also handled the kickoffs, hit 16 field goals and all but 2 of his 49 PATs after assuming the placekicking job in the third game of last season.
In terms of difficulty, it might be hard to match USC's 2002 schedule-which featured 11 bowl-bound team, including 9 ranked by AP (and only 1 with a losing record) at the time of the game-but Troy's 2003 slate might not be far behind. USC-which has 3 byes in 2003-will face 8 teams that played in bowls last season, including 3 ranked in the final AP Top 20. The Trojans open on Aug. 30 at SEC power Auburn, picked by some prognosticators as a national title contender in 2003. Then, after hosting BYU and Hawaii, USC ventures into the always-difficult Pac-10 campaign, with 4 of its next 5 games on the road (including its annual tilt with non-conference rival Notre Dame). The Trojans play at California, Arizona State, Washington and Arizona, and host Stanford, Washington State and crosstown foe UCLA. The Pac-10 finale is a home contest against Oregon State on 'Championship Saturday' (Dec. 6, the latest USC regular season game since 1980).
'Last year showed that we're willing to play anybody anywhere,' said Carroll. 'This year's schedule again is very challenging from the first game to the last. We'll have to play championship football every week. It's also a very attractive schedule, so I can see why people are saying that USC tickets are the hottest in town!'
RETURNING STARTERS (14)
OTHERS WITH CAREER STARTS
DT Shaun Cody (14)
CB Kevin Arbet (4)
CB Ronald Nunn (3)
CB William Buchanon (3)
WR Mike Williams (2)
S Jason Leach (2)
FB Brandon Hancock (2)
TE Gregg Guenther Jr. (1)
WR D. Hale (1)
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