Defending National Champion USC Football Team Begins Spring Practice
March 3, 2004
LOS ANGELES - As the 2004 USC football team begins spring football drills this Saturday (March 6) for 15 sessions through April 9, the talk will be inevitable...and understandably so.
'Can the USC football team defend its national championship in 2004?'But fourth-year USC head coach Pete Carroll is having none of it.
'That talk is beyond our control,' said Carroll, the National Coach of the Year in 2003 after his team was named the national champion by Associated Press, Football Writers Association of America, The Sporting News, New York Times, ESPN.com, SI.com, CBS.SportsLine.com, Collegefootballnews.com and several other organizations. 'Our goal always will be to win the Pac-10 championship and the Rose Bowl.
'But because of our accomplishments the past two seasons, we know we'll be challenged to the max each game now. We understand that we'll always see our opponents at their best. So we must take our game to the next level and be ready for everyone's best shot.'
On paper, USC appears to have the ingredients to deal with those shots. The Trojans return 14 starters (6 each on offense and defense, plus both kickers) from last year's record-setting team that won its last 9 games en route to a 12-1 overall mark. Troy captured its second consecutive Pac-10 title (going 7-1) and beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl to secure its ninth national crown (its first in 25 years). Along the way, USC swept traditional rivals UCLA and Notre Dame for the second year in a row (only the second time it has ever done that in back-to-back seasons).
All of that came on the heels of USC's nearly-as-successful 2002 campaign that ended with an 11-2 mark, a victory in the Orange Bowl and a No. 4 final ranking.
In all, 80 squadmen return from last year's national championship team, including 56 who saw playing time in 2003 (50 were lettermen and 31 were on the season-ending 2-deep). Some 23 Trojans have started at least once in their career.
Joining them will be 20 new scholarship players-including 3 already enrolled at USC and set to participate in spring practice-who comprise what many are saying is the school's second consecutive No. 1 recruiting class in the nation.
It's no wonder, then, that the Trojans likely will enter the 2004 campaign as a pre-season favorite to repeat as national champs.'The key for us this year will be whether we can return to the work ethic that made it possible to have the success we've had the past few years,' said Carroll, who is 29-9 at USC (including 10-0 in November). 'It's a work ethic we must have in workouts, in practices and in games. We'll have a very competitive environment each day to determine playing time and starting roles. Each player must bring his best every day. If we can have that kind of work ethic, we'll be on the right track.'
And, if that happens, Carroll could have USC primed to relive the glory days of the program, when Troy ruled the college football world in the '30s, '60s and '70s. After all, his Trojans have won 20 of their last 21 games (and their past 15 home contests) and have been dominant on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Troy has scored at least 20 points in the past 26 outings, with stretches of 11 consecutive 30-point games and 7 straight 40-point performances, and last year scored a Pac-10 record 534 points. And the Trojan defense-whose +1.33 turnover margin and +111 takeaways in Carroll's first 3 seasons are best in the nation-topped the country in 2003 in rushing defense. Last year, 2 Trojans finished in the Top 10 in the Heisman Trophy balloting, 5 were All-American first team selections and 9 were All-Pac-10 first teamers.
USC has accomplished this with a multi-pronged offensive attack that stresses efficiency and ball control, an aggressive defensive approach that thrives on getting turnovers and an effective, mistake-free kicking game.
'That's my fundamental approach to the game: control the ball on offense, go get it on defense and make things happen on special teams,' said Carroll.
On offense in 2004, USC's entire backfield and the tight ends are back, but new wide receivers must be developed and part of the line must be rebuilt. Defensively, Troy should be strong at linebacker and up the middle from front to back, while the ends and corners must be replaced. The kicking game returns intact, except for the snapper.
Headlining the offense will be All-American quarterback Matt Leinart, who should figure prominently in this year's Heisman race (he was sixth in last season's voting). Only the second sophomore (along with Stanford's John Elway) to be named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year, he threw for 3,556 yards and a Pac-10 record 38 touchdowns (with only 9 interceptions) last fall while finishing third nationally in passing efficiency (a USC record 164.5 rating).
All the running backs return, also: starting tailback Hershel Dennis (661 rushing yards in 2003) and top backups LenDale White (his 754 yards last season made him the first true freshman to lead USC in rushing, while his 13 rushing TDs was a Trojan frosh record) and Reggie Bush (a Freshman All-American who set the USC freshman all-purpose yardage mark with 1,331 yards last fall), plus fullback Brandon Hancock.The tight end corps is deep, with Gregg Guenther Jr. (17 catches and 2 TDs in 2003)-also a star on the Trojan basketball team-back after starting the last half of 2003, along with Dominique Byrd (14 catches and 6 early starts in 2003) and Alex Holmes (58 career catches), USC's starter in 2002 but injured last season.Tackle Winston Justice, an All-American candidate, and guard Fred Matua return as starters on the line (John Drake, who started 7 times last year at guard and tackle, is back as well).
Key losses from the offense are both wide receivers-Keary Colbert, a 4-year starter who set the USC career receptions record (207), and All-American Mike Williams, who had 176 receptions and a USC record 30 touchdowns in his 2-year career before taking advantage of a court ruling to leaving after his sophomore year for the NFL-and a trio of experienced linemen: All-American tackle Jacob Rogers (a 3-year starter), All-Pac-10 center Norm Katnik (a 3-year starter) and guard Lenny Vandermade (a 4-year starter).
The defense features 6 starters from a year ago: a pair of returning All-Pac-10 tackles in Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson (both are 2-year starters who combined for 81 tackles, 24 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, 3 fumble recoveries and 3 blocked field goals in 2003), always-around-the-ball linebacker Matt Grootegoed (a 3-year starter), 2003 Freshman All-American Darnell Bing and fellow safety Jason Leach (his 88 tackles were second on USC in 2003), and 2003 USC tackle leader Lofa Tatupu (98 stops) at middle linebacker. Cody, Patterson and Grootegoed are All-American candidates.
Other key defenders returning with starting experience include linebacker-safety Dallas Sartz (6 starts), end Frostee Rucker (5 starts), and cornerbacks Ronald Nunn and Kevin Arbet (he missed 2002 and most of 2003 with a foot injury).
Gone from the defense are All-American end Kenechi Udeze, a 3-year starter who left after his junior season to enter the NFL draft (he was the nation's sack co-leader in 2003 when he had 16.5 sacks, 26 tackles for loss and 5 forced fumbles), and fellow end Omar Nazel (a 2-year starter), plus both starting cornerbacks (All-Pac-10er Will Poole, who had 7 interceptions and 80 tackles in 2003, and Marcell Allmond, who led USC to an 18-1 mark when he started in the secondary) and 2-year starting outside linebacker Melvin Simmons.USC's punter (All-American Tom Malone, whose 49.0 average in 2003 was a school record) and placekicker (Ryan Killeen, whose 65 PATs last year set a Pac-10 record and 19 field goals tied the USC mark) are back, as well as USC's top kick returner (Bush) and punt returner (wide receiver Greig Carlson) from 2003. But both snappers (short snapper Joe Boskovich and long snapper Matt Hayward) must be replaced.
Despite all of its returning talent, skeptics surely will question USC's ability to replace such impact players as Williams, Udeze, Colbert, Rogers and Poole. But Carroll speaks from experience when he says he is confident that his 2004 Trojans will respond well. Just look what happened last year when Troy had to replace a number of top performers, including the 2002 Heisman winner (Carson Palmer), the nation's best safety (Troy Polamalu) and 3 NFL-caliber tailbacks (Justin Fargas, Sultan McCullough and Malaefou MacKenzie).
'We understand how to handle personnel losses and move on,' said Carroll. 'Our team is well-prepared for this because it presents a great opportunity for others to step to the front. They'll take this challenge on with great excitement this year. It'll be fun to see who steps up.'
USC will defend its national championship against a schedule that features 6 opponents who played in bowls last season. The challenge starts right away, as the Trojans open on Aug. 28 against perennial power Virginia Tech in the Black Coaches Association Football Classic in Landover, Md. USC then plays at BYU, hosts Colorado State and travels to Stanford before having a trio of home games (California, Arizona and Washington) followed by a pair of road contests (Washington State and Oregon State). The Trojans then return home to host Arizona and Notre Dame before concluding their season on 'Championship Saturday' (Dec. 4) at UCLA. It's a schedule that could help USC better the average overall (72,806) and home (77,804) attendance school records it set last year...and gives credence to the Trojan marketing department's 2004 slogan of 'Still The Hottest Ticket In Town.'
'Once again, this is a tremendously challenging schedule,' said Carroll. 'It starts with a big-time opener against a premier program and never lets up. We had tremendous fan support last year and we'll need all of them again in our quest to be the best in 2004.'
RETURNING STARTERS (14)
OTHERS RETURNING WITH CAREER STARTS
OG John Drake (7)
LB-S Dallas Sartz (6)
CB Kevin Arbet (6)
TE Dominique Byrd (6)
DE Frostee Rucker (5)
LB Lee Webb (5)
CB Ronald Nunn (3)
WR William Buchanon (3)
LB Collin Ashton (2)
FB David Kirtman (1)
WR Chris McFoy (1)
|(12-1 overall, 7-1 for 1st place in Pac-10)|
|31||at California (3OT)||34|
|37||at Arizona State||17|
|45||at Notre Dame||14|
|28||vs. Michigan (Rose Bowl)||14|
|Aug. 28||vs. Virginia Tech(at Landover, Md.)|
|Sept. 4||at BYU|
|Sept. 11||Colorado State|
|Sept. 25||at Stanford|
|Oct. 16||Arizona State|
|Oct. 30||at Washington State|
|Nov. 6||at Oregon State|
|Nov. 27||Notre Dame|
|Dec. 4||at UCLA|