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THE CARSON SHOW

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Think of all the plays Carson Palmer made as a freshman quarterback starting for USC.

Now imagine if he’d only known what he was doing.

Sure, he looked poised. And there was no missing that golden arm.

But beneath the calm facade, Palmer acknowledges, he barely had a clue.

“A lot of times during the whole season I wasn’t sure about a lot of things, and I messed up a lot,” he said. “There were a lot of times where I’d know who my No. 1 receiver was, and have no idea who No. 2 was.

“I’d just be looking for somebody to be open. You can’t get by with doing that. This year, I’ll know.”

Most quarterbacks can’t get by doing that, but Palmer often did.

“Yeah, it happened quite a few times,” he said.

Find R. Jay Soward open deep, and a busted play turns into a touchdown.

“I wish it happened every time, but it didn’t,” Palmer said.

Now that Palmer has a grip on USC’s mammoth West Coast playbook and knows how to recognize more sophisticated defenses than he saw in high school--and now that he has inherited the title of L.A.’s best quarterback from Cade McNown--the Trojans can hardly wait to see what he can do.

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“ ‘Survival’ was the better word for last year,” Coach Paul Hackett said. “Now, all of a sudden, Carson gets the chance to be the quarterback, as opposed to the guy that wings it down the field.”

In an off-season when the news was about who didn’t work out, little has been said about how hard Palmer worked, not only on the field and in the weight room--he and receiver Windrell Hayes and tailback Malaefou MacKenzie were all but inseparable--but in the film room and studying the playbook.

How much better will all that make him?

“I don’t know,” said Palmer, who passed for 1,755 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman. “I can’t say, but I think I’m going to be a completely different player, knowing what’s going on, knowing what the defense is doing.

“I mean, Coach Hackett says every single day when you go into the meeting, ‘Knowledge is power.’ And at first, I was like, yeah, whatever. But now I know what he’s talking about. He says the smartest players are usually the best. And especially with this offense, that’s the right quote.”

Knowledge is power, and lack of knowledge is reason to quake in your cleats.

Nothing was worse than the Oregon game, when USC’s failure to get a play in on time deep in Oregon territory in the fourth quarter--a mistake for which the coaches must shoulder much of the blame--contributed to the Trojans’ loss.

“I remember I was panicked,” Palmer said. “Everybody was like, ‘What’s the play?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

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He threw for a touchdown anyway, although it was called back because of the delay penalty.

Palmer has made one noticeable change already, switching his number from 15 to 3, his high school number, but the biggest changes should be in his ability to read defenses and recognize how the coverage affects his options.

“Before, I’d look and have no idea what coverage it was,” Palmer admitted. “Now I recognize just the little things that tell you.”

It hasn’t taken the players around him long to see the difference.

“He’s come a long way,” said Mike Van Raaphorst, the quarterback Palmer unseated for the starting job the final five games of last season.

“The main thing, mentally, is he’s starting to figure everything out. He said last year he didn’t really know what to do sometimes. I think he has a good idea this year.

“It’s never been a question of his arm. People will say, ‘I think his arm looks stronger.’ But his arm has always been that strong. He’s just making the reads quicker.”

Hayes--one Trojan receiver who knows who butters his bread--worked out with Palmer almost incessantly this summer, and he and MacKenzie went home with Palmer to Laguna Hills to train when they had a day off from voluntary drills at USC.

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“I think he’s matured a lot,” Hayes said. “He’s getting ready for a great sophomore season. He’s always had the arm. The ability was not ever a question with Carson. More or less, it was just picking up the offense.

“He always called the play like he knew what he was doing. As far as recognizing coverages, that’s where he’s made progress.”

Hackett made his reputation as a quarterback coach in the NFL, and knew he had a special student in Palmer from the first day of practice last season.

Now they get to see where they can take this thing.

“I looked back at the Purdue game last year,” Hackett said of the Trojans’ opener. “One of the first plays he was in, he dropped back, we missed a block, he scrambled around, ducked his head, stopped and flat-footed threw a ball 60 yards in the air and we jumped up and caught it and I’m saying, ‘Boy, that was great coaching.’ That guy was trying to survive. I’m hoping we’ve taken another step.

“All the things you can’t do when you don’t know what to look at, or look for, you can do in the second year. I think it will allow Carson to not just be a survivor but be a performer in that leadership role where he will be able to better affect the people around him.

“Is Carson Palmer going to play in his second year like we expect him to play in his third and fourth year? Well, absolutely not. Is he going to play better and with more confidence than in Year 1? Well, I certainly hope so.”

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So there is progress, but Palmer is far from a finished work.

“I don’t know if you’re ever a completed project,” said quarterback coach Ken O’Brien, the former NFL quarterback. “If you think you are, then you’re on your way out. I have the highest expectations for him.

“When he makes a mistake now, he’ll talk about what happened and what he should have done. Last year when that happened, he didn’t know. Now he knows the system.”

So maybe Palmer could have used somebody to tell him the details of a few of the plays last season. This season, he’s taking a different role.

“Every time one of us screws up, he’s the first to come over and say, ‘Here’s what you do,’ ” said receiver Matt Nickels, a walk-on transfer who played with Palmer at Santa Margarita High School in Rancho Santa Margarita several years ago.

That makes all the difference, even in training camp.

“Last year, everything was going a million miles an hour, trying to learn the offense and stuff,” Palmer said. “This year it’s completely different. I’m not worried about the kind of plays we’re putting in. I feel a lot more comfortable. I already know the plays. I’m used to the receivers already. I’m used to being out here. There’s just no comparison to last year.”

A year ago, he was one of five quarterbacks hoping for a shot.

Now, he is the quarterback, past, present and future.

If Palmer didn’t know how high the hopes for his career were growing, he must have realized it when he saw his picture on the cover of a preseason magazine.

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“I know there are a lot of high expectations already and the season is still three weeks away,” he said.

“But I think I knew that coming into this season, and that’s what made me work harder, because I want to exceed all those expectations everyone has for me. So that was just something I thrived on that made me work harder.”

His mother, Danna Palmer, saw that in her son and his teammates when they made their training treks home to Laguna Hills.

“He’s very serious,” she said. “He doesn’t want to let anybody down, the coaches or the other players. He’s not taking any chances--he wouldn’t ride a skateboard or anything like that. This is his focus. This is what he wants, and he doesn’t want anything like an injury that would make him unable to play.”

By the way, Palmer’s mother finally got a good look at the Trojan playbook her son calls “as big as the bible” not too long ago.

“I told him, ‘If you can learn this, I expect better grades,’ ” she said. “Totally a mother thing.”

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1. ROB JOHNSON

Freshman: Attempted only 36 passes.

Career: 8,472 yards, 58 touchdowns

2. RODNEY PEETE

Freshman: Attempted only 85 passes.

Career: 8,225 yards,

54 TD

3. BRAD OTTON

Freshman: 2,307 yards, 15 TD (at Weber State)

Career (USC): 5,359 yards, 40 TD, 14 INT

4. TODD MARINOVICH

Freshman: 2,578 yards, 16 TD, 13 INT

Career: 5,001 yards,

29 TD

5. SEAN SALISBURY

Freshman: Attempted 15 passes.

Career: 4,481 yards, 25 TD, 19 INT

A FRESH START

Carson Palmer’s first season

Attempts: 235

Comp.: 130

%: 55.3

Yards: 1,755

TD: 7

INT: 6

Note: Already ranks 20th on USC’s career passing list

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