Matt Cassel wore an ace bandage on his right knee and a look of confidence on his face Monday as USC football players returned to campus for the start of the spring semester and met with coaches for the first time since their Orange Bowl victory over Iowa on Jan. 2.
Cassel, one of four returning quarterbacks competing to replace Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, had arthroscopic surgery on his knee Thursday to repair cartilage damage suffered during a training camp scrimmage Aug. 17.
Starting defensive ends Kenechi Udeze and Omar Nazel also had arthroscopic knee surgeries on Thursday and Friday, respectively.
Cassel, a redshirt sophomore, was Palmer's seldom-used backup this season. He will try to beat out transfer Brandon Hance and redshirt freshmen Matt Leinart and Billy Hart when spring practice begins March 4.
"It's been a long time coming," Cassel said of the opportunity to start. "I paid my dues and learned behind a great guy. I'm going in with the mind-set of being the starter and getting this team ready to go.
"We need somebody to step up and be a leader because a lot of seniors are leaving."
Linebacker Oscar Lua, who had knee surgery Dec. 24 to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, had stitches removed Monday and said his rehabilitation schedule will encompass four months.
Offensive lineman Eric Torres, who broke his ankle during the Orange Bowl, is recovering from surgery a few days after the game. Defensive tackle Shaun Cody and cornerback Ronald Nunn continue to rehabilitate from major knee surgeries during the season.
Safety Troy Polamalu will not participate in the Senior Bowl all-star game Saturday in Mobile, Ala., because he has not fully recovered from ankle and hamstring injuries. Polamalu played only two plays against Iowa because of a reaction to a shot intended to relieve discomfort in his left hamstring. Palmer and running backs Justin Fargas and Malaefou MacKenzie are in Mobile for the Senior Bowl. Offensive coordinator Norm Chow is also there, to watch Palmer, he said.... Running back Sultan McCullough said he was thrilled to show scouts his speed during a 76-yard scoring play on a screen pass in the East-West Shrine game Saturday. McCullough said he is preparing for an NFL combine.