Rite of Passage Is Plight of Spring

Times Staff Writer

Carson Palmer is off to seek his NFL fortune, his presence on USC's campus now confined to a Heritage Hall trophy case.

Spring practice begins Tuesday, and for the first time since 1998, the Trojans will open the sessions without Palmer, last year's Heisman Trophy winner, as the starting quarterback.

Redshirt sophomore Matt Cassel, redshirt freshmen Matt Leinart and Billy Hart and junior transfer Brandon Hance are competing to replace the Pacific 10 Conference's career passing leader and usher in the post-Palmer era when the Trojans play at Auburn on Aug. 30. Coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow want the issue settled by the end of spring drills April 5.

"They're all good, capable guys and it's their turn to step up," Carroll said. "The part that makes me uneasy is they haven't played for us before. But it had to happen sometime and this is it."

The search for a No. 1 quarterback is the primary focus, but the Trojans also must replace their tailback trio, the Nos. 3 and 4 receivers and a right guard, middle linebacker, cornerback and safety.

Defensive tackle Shaun Cody (knee), offensive lineman Eric Torres (ankle), linebacker Oscar Lua (knee) and fullback Brandon Hancock (hand) are recovering from surgeries and will not participate. Offensive linemen Winston Justice (shoulders) and Lenny Vandermade (biceps) and cornerback Ronald Nunn (knee) will have limited roles during a camp that includes 15 workouts.

The spring also marks the return of senior cornerback Kevin Arbet, who was scheduled to start last season before he suffered a foot injury, and the debut of safety Darnell Bing, a highly touted freshman who will bring Athletic Director Mike Garrett's No. 20 out of retirement.

With the Trojans coming off an 11-2 season, Carroll said developing possible replacements for lost starters is not his only goal during spring drills.

"It's making sure that the intensity, focus and detail is continuing to hold to the standard that gave us a chance to be good last year," Carroll said. "That will always be my biggest concern because if we don't have that we don't have anything."

Still, the quarterback competition is expected to dominate interest as the Trojans attempt to sustain the momentum they gained during their resurgent season.

Cassel, 6 feet 5, 225 pounds, was Palmer's seldom-used backup last season. The Chatsworth High alumnus has thrown six passes in his USC career.

Cassel said he learned much from watching his former housemate the last three seasons. Before spring drills began in 2002, Cassel rejected a request from the coaching staff to switch to tight end for a season because he knew this day would come.

"I paid my dues and learned behind a great guy," Cassel said a few days after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in January. "I'm going in with the mind-set of being the starter and getting this team ready to go."

Leinart, 6-6, 215, has not thrown a pass in a game since arriving from Santa Ana Mater Dei. He had several chances to displace Cassel as Palmer's backup during training camp scrimmages last August but played poorly and was relegated to No. 3 on the depth chart.

"I was just too hard on myself. When I made a mistake, I kept it with me," Leinart said. "Coach Chow always says, 'All quarterbacks make mistakes, it's how you battle back.' So I'm not going to put too much pressure on myself."

Hart, 6-2, 205, has taken one snap in a game. Hart, who played at Mission Viejo High, spent most of the last two seasons running the scout team against the Trojans' No. 1 defense, which could work to his advantage, Carroll said.

Hart, however, also is an outfielder for the Trojan baseball team. He is scheduled to take part in the first seven football workouts. His participation beyond that during the spring will be based on his performance.

"If it's real obvious that he is competing for the starting position and he needs all those reps, we'll just make that determination," Carroll said.

Hance, 6-1, 190, has the most college game experience, which could give him an edge. The Woodland Hills Taft graduate started Purdue's first nine games in 2001, passed for 1,529 yards and eight touchdowns and rushed for 242 yards and four touchdowns. Hance had shoulder surgery in May and sat out last season while attending USC.

"He comes in not having been in the system and having very little time preparing with it," Carroll said. "But the other side of it is that I saw him play against the Big Ten, against Michigan in front of 103,000 people and against Minnesota, so I have a lot of that kind of background on him. We have to see how he fits in."

Steve Sarkisian, USC's quarterbacks coach, said the player who emerges as No. 1 will probably be the one who does not try to impress too much.

"We're not going to ask him to go out and win the Heisman Trophy, so it's the guy who comes in and plays efficiently, and doesn't turn the ball over, but makes the plays that are there to be made," Sarkisian said.

With Justin Fargas, Sultan McCullough and Malaefou MacKenzie gone, freshman Hershel Dennis is the No. 1 tailback.

Dennis rushed for 190 yards and one touchdown in 47 carries last season.

Carroll describes the depth at the position as "a big question mark" and expects incoming freshmen such as Reggie Bush to contribute immediately.

"We know we're going to have to find more guys -- it takes three tailbacks to get through a season," Carroll said. "The young guys are really going to figure in and we're counting on them to come in and play."

Hancock's absence makes redshirt sophomore Lee Webb the top fullback. David Kirtman will back him up.

Juniors Jason Mitchell and D. Hale and freshman Chris McFoy get an early shot at replacing receivers Kareem Kelly and Grant Mattos before incoming freshmen Whitney Lewis and Steve Smith arrive for training camp.

Gregg Guenther is playing basketball, so freshman Dominique Byrd will get an extended look at tight end behind starter Alex Holmes.

Freshmen Fred Matua and Kyle Williams, who both redshirted last season, are competing for playing time on the offensive line.

With defensive ends Kenechi Udeze and Omar Nazel both coming off arthroscopic knee surgery, transfer Frostee Rucker will work as a down lineman.

Lua's injury and subsequent surgery in December elevated transfer Lofa Tatupu to No. 1 at middle linebacker. Daniel Urquhart, who redshirted last season, has been moved from end to middle linebacker.

Linebackers Matt Grootegoed and Melvin Simmons are established starters on the strong and weak sides, respectively, but Carroll said freshman Dallas Sartz could force some movement among the corps.

Cornerback Marcell Allmond will also spend some time at safety while Arbet, freshman Justin Wyatt and redshirt freshman William Buchanon compete for the other cornerback spot.

Redshirt sophomore Jason Leach played both safety positions last season and is expected to replace Troy Polamalu at strong safety. Freshman Mike Ross and Bing also are competing for a position.

"I've been looking forward to finally getting on the field," said Bing, who graduated from Long Beach Poly High in June and has enrolled at USC for the spring semester after obtaining a qualifying test score.

Carroll is eager to watch his quarterbacks work against Bing and other defenders as the Trojans prepare for a schedule that includes nonconference games against Notre Dame, Brigham Young and Hawaii.

"The only way to know what you really have is to go out there and compete," Carroll said. "We can't wait to get started."

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