- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 12, 2006

LOS ANGELES — At Southern California this summer, practice looks more like — well — practice, and not a paparazzi gathering. And inside Heritage Hall, when the phone rings, nobody expects “People” on the other end of the line asking about where Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush went for dinner.

Yes, the celebrities are gone this year from one of America’s top football campuses.

And they took with them much more than the buzz. Try two Heisman trophies, two national championships, one second-place finish and a whole bunch of playmaking ability, to say nothing of LenDale White and eight more Trojans who were snatched up by the NFL.

“They left and it kind of felt like the Beatles broke up,” said Tim Tessalone, who runs the school’s sports information department, which is unusually quiet this summer compared to the past few years.

the past few years.

While they’re not stars in the Leinart-Bush sense, some of their most notable replacements are hardly new names in football circles. There’s junior John David Booty at quarterback, junior Chauncey Washington at tailback and junior receiver Dwayne Jarrett as the next possible Heisman winner.

But there are questions surrounding the Trojans as they head into the sixth year of Pete Carroll’s remarkable rebuilding effort. They have been dogged by some unflattering off-the-field issues in the offseason and hounded, as well, by the most relevant question: Can they replace two forces the size of Leinart and Bush?

Naturally, the Trojans are accentuating the positive.

“When we lost the last Heisman Trophy winner, Carson Palmer, no one knew who the quarterback was going to be,” said offensive lineman Ryan Kalil, an all-Pac-10 player regarded as one of the best in the country. “No one was too excited about Matt Cassel or Matt Leinart. It was kind of a coin toss as to who they’d pick, and look what happened.”

USC moves forward with confidence based on the premise that the recruiting machine Carroll has constructed continues to bring in good players. Lots of them. This year’s class was ranked first by Rivals.com and SuperPrep magazine. In fact, Washington — who tweaked a hamstring last week in practice — will have to fight off a couple freshmen to secure his job. And Booty, who has more experience in the system than Leinart had when he took over, is under pressure from redshirt freshman Mark Sanchez.

But there are cautionary tales out there.

In 2003, Miami was building off a national championship, two straight trips to the title game and a three-season record of 35-2. Ken Dorsey and Willis McGahee left and 26 players had been drafted by the NFL over three years, but still, the main theory was that a program as set-up as that one had nothing to worry about.

Three seasons later, the Hurricanes have endured eight losses, two straight Peach Bowls and suddenly, Larry Coker finds himself on the list of coaches on that proverbial hot seat.

“There is a lot of responsibility there and a lot of challenge,” Coker said. “Sometimes it goes two ways. Sometimes you might take it for granted — hey, ‘I’m at Miami’ or ‘I’m at USC.’ Or it’s like, this guy was a great player and I want to show them what I can do. That is what you like to see happen.”

That’s what Carroll expects.

He refuses to coach from the negative aspect — won’t buy into that hackneyed coaching method of prodding players into believing they’re not accomplished, not as good as their press clippings suggest, not any better than every Arkansas, Nebraska and Washington that comes their way.

“We have experienced guys and we know what we’re doing,” Carroll said. “So there’s not much reason to go with anything other than what the truth is. We’re going to be a nice football team again. We’re going to play hard and practice hard and there’s no reason to think otherwise.”

Asked about the Miami example, Carroll turns that on its head, too.

“I used to think about Miami knowing they were 5-6 at one time and they put together five great years of recruiting and they were flying from that point on,” he said. “We put together our years of recruiting and the great depth we have. The benefits of recruiting really successfully over the long term shows up.”

While nobody doubts the talent, the new guys still have to step out there and show they can do it under the microscope of 90,000 screaming fans at the Coliseum. It’s true that nothing prepares these USC players better than practicing, day in and day out, against their own teammates. But Booty, who is fully recovered from offseason surgery on a herniated disc, is in touch with the reality that he hasn’t played significant time in a game with anything on the line.

“When I got in before, it was, ‘Do your best,’ but it wasn’t a matter of if you were going to win,” Booty said. “Now, it’s different. I’m really excited about the opportunity to get out there, but I’m not always thinking about it. It’s not always in the back of my mind. It’s something I’m prepared for.”

Returning to practice has been something of a relief for the Trojans, who have always been in the LA spotlight, but have found it turned up a notch in the wake of their success and the relative slumps of many others in the SoCal sports scene.

In the offseason, USC was in the news for lots of the wrong reasons, including:

• Possible NCAA problems about Bush’s family’s living arrangements.

• The NCAA found an extra benefits violation occurred when Leinart and Jarrett lived together in an apartment where the rent was paid for largely by Leinart’s dad. The NCAA has already cleared Jarrett to play.

• Sanchez’s arrest on suspicion of sexual assault. He was never charged.

• The sudden departure of defensive back Brandon Ting after he tested positive for steroids.

Though none of the incidents would be huge if taken separately, lump them all together and some suggest USC starts showing signs of a renegade program.

That would seem to be a stretch, yet Carroll knows he must redouble his efforts to make sure his players realize the fishbowl they’re in, for better or worse.

“I sure wouldn’t gripe about the reality of it given all the attention we get with all the good stuff,” he said. “This is just part of it.”

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