A record-equaling fourth consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl might be too much to ask of a young, mostly inexperienced USC football team.
But what’s the harm in asking?
“We’re not going to put any limitations on ourselves,” said Coach Larry Smith, whose ninth-ranked Trojans will play Syracuse at East Rutherford, N.J., Friday night.
In preparation for a season that will include games against five bowl winners from last season and only five games at the Coliseum, Smith has had to replace nine defensive starters from a unit that ranked first in the nation in rushing defense and second in total defense last season.
Among the missing are All-American linebacker Junior Seau and All-American safety Mark Carrier, who gave up their senior seasons and were among the first six players chosen in the NFL draft.
Offensively, seven starters had to be replaced, including three first-team all-conference linemen, the school’s all-time lead ing receiver and a fullback who was a two-time all-conference selection and the most productive rusher at the position in USC history.
The seven returning Trojan starters are the fewest since 1965. More than half the players on the 44-man, two-deep chart are underclassmen, and USC seems especially vulnerable in the secondary.
Still, Smith’s goals remain unchanged:
--Beat UCLA and Notre Dame.
--Win the Pacific-10 championship and the Rose Bowl.
--Win the national championship.
In terms of talent, Smith said, the Trojans of 1990 are “probably on a par” with his first three USC teams, which were 21-1-1 against the Pac-10 and ended each season in the Rose Bowl.
“But it’s tough to judge a team before it plays,” he said.
Still, the Trojans have reasons to be optimistic.
Reason No. 1 is quarterback Todd Marinovich, college football’s freshman of the year in 1989, when he took over as an 11th-hour replacement for injured Pat O’Hara and guided the Trojans to a 9-2-1 record--including a 17-10 victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
After a season during which he set a school record by completing 62.2% of his passes, Marinovich ranks sixth on the Trojans’ all-time passing list.
Is Smith concerned that he, too, might leave school early?
“Sure,” Smith said. “He’s a prime candidate, I’m sure.”
Marinovich, 6 feet 4 and 210 pounds, will be asked to throw deep more often this season to take advantage of the Trojans’ speed on the flanks and to open the short game.
“We’ve got a high-completion passer, so we’ve got to get people back off us, so he can continue to be a high-percentage passer,” Smith said. “The way to do that is to go downtown and say, ‘Here we come.’ ”
The Trojans will challenge defenses with a talented group of receivers, including senior Gary Wellman and sophomore Joel Scott, who are expected to start after combining for 41 receptions last season. Six of Wellman’s 23 catches went for touchdowns.
In the absence of John Jackson, USC’s all-time leading receiver, several others are expected to play quite a bit, too, including sophomores Larry Wallace and Travis Hannah, redshirt freshman Johnnie Morton and freshman Curtis Conway.
Conway, expected to be used in a variety of roles, has been compared to Notre Dame’s multitalented Raghib (Rocket) Ismail. Said Marinovich: “If you think Rocket is fast, wait till you see Curtis.”
Joining Marinovich in the backfield will be tailback Ricky Ervins, a durable 5-8, 190-pound senior who led the Pac-10 in rushing last season and was the most valuable player in the Rose Bowl game. He ran for 1,395 yards and scored 11 touchdowns as a junior, the most productive season for a Trojan tailback since 1981, when Marcus Allen ran for 2,427 yards and won the Heisman Trophy.
Ervins also was USC’s No. 2 receiver with 39 receptions. Smith calls him “the key to the offense.”
Ervins’ backup, junior Scott Lockwood, will also be used at fullback, where the Trojans hope to fill the void left by Leroy Holt. Lockwood, who started five games at tailback two years ago and ran for 527 yards, is back after missing last season because of torn ligaments in his right thumb.
Junior Raoul Spears probably will start at fullback, Smith said. He and redshirt freshman Rory Brown have been capable blockers, Smith said, but neither has distinguished himself as a runner.
Among the offensive linemen, All-American guard Mark Tucker and tackle Pat Harlow, a 6-7, 270-pound senior, are returning starters. Others expected to start include redshirt freshman David Apolskis at center, junior Michael Moody at tackle and junior Derrick Deese, a transfer from El Camino College, at guard.
Senior Frank Griffin, who caught 14 passes last season, will be the starter at tight end, with sophomore Yonnie Jackson backing him up.
Defensively, the Trojans probably won’t be as imposing as they were the last two seasons, when they ranked first in the Pac-10 and among the best in the country.
“We’re not going to be able to just shut people down,” defensive coordinator Chris Allen said. “We feel like we’re going to have to make some big plays to stop people. We’re going to have to cause fumbles. I got the feeling last year in some games that when our defense went out there, it was going to be three downs and out.
“This year, people are going to get first downs on us. We’re just not going to be as dominant, and we’re going to make some mistakes. We’ve got to rally to the ball and make big plays to compensate for that.”
The strength of a defense that Smith has described as “the fastest I’ve ever coached” will be in a group of linebackers led by senior Scott Ross. A fourth-year starter and two-time All-conference selection, Ross is “an assassin to the enemies’ statistics,” in the words of Tom Roggeman, the assistant who coaches the Trojans’ inside linebackers.
Ross will be joined on the inside by junior Matt Gee and two capable backups, senior Brian Tuliau and redshirt freshman Gidion Murrell.
Replacing Seau at one outside linebacker position will be senior Craig Hartsuyker, a starter two years ago before he was replaced last season by Seau, the Pac-10’s defensive player of the year.
Junior Kurt Barber is expected to start on the other side, with sophomores David Webb and J.R. Chesley and freshman Willie McGinest, who has been impressive in his first camp, in reserve.
On the line, the Trojans will count heavily on senior Don Gibson, who started at nose guard for two seasons before being sidelined last season because of a knee injury. Gibson will alternate between nose guard and defensive guard.
“He’ll be a force as long as he holds together,” Allen said.
With All-American tackle Tim Ryan and all-conference defensive guard Dan Owens now playing in the NFL, redshirt freshman Terry McDaniels will move into Ryan’s spot, and senior Gene Fruge will share time with redshirt freshman Mike Hinz at nose guard and defensive guard, depending on where Gibson is positioned.
In the secondary, Carrier’s departure left USC with no returning starters. And a career-ending injury this month to DeChon Burns left the Trojans with only two players with more than limited experience.
Two starters, senior Marcus Hopkins at strong safety and junior Calvin Holmes at cornerback, are converted tailbacks. And at least one redshirt freshman will start--Howard McCowan, Marcel Brown or Mike Salmon.
Still, Allen called Hopkins and sophomore Stephon Pace, who will alternate between cornerback and free safety, “as good as anybody we’ve ever had.” And Bobby April, who coaches the secondary, said of the Trojan defensive backs: “It’s a great unit with great talent.”
Said Smith: “We’ll be better defensively than people give us credit for. We had a lot of losses--a lot of big-name losses--but I think we’ve got more experience on defense than what paper shows.”
Quin Rodriguez, entering his fourth season as kicker, needs 13 field goals to break Steve Jordan’s USC record of 51.
Junior Ron Dale and senior Marc Preston are the punters.