It was no surprise Tuesday night when USC’s team physician cleared quarterback Mark Sanchez to start the Trojans’ opener against Virginia.
The word came down, however, after Sanchez’s most uneven practice performance since returning from the knee injury he suffered nearly three weeks ago.
The junior had two passes intercepted during the Trojans’ final scrimmage drill.
Coach Pete Carroll said Sanchez otherwise looked good and praised his mobility, but added, “There’s some rust in there and we’ve got to hopefully get him clean by the weekend.”
The turnovers put a slight damper on a day when Sanchez said he “felt as close to a 100% as I’ve felt in a long time.”
“I was bummed,” Sanchez said of the interceptions by cornerback Cary Harris and defensive end Malik Jackson. “I was working hard and trying to get the ball to open receivers and they made pretty good plays.”
Sanchez, who had four passes intercepted in his three starts last season, tried to see the positive Tuesday.
“I need to just see that kind of stuff and know that I can’t just be throwing the ball anywhere; I’ve got to be accurate,” he said. “But it’s all right. We’ve got a good defense. I’m excited about them doing that too.”
Running backs coach Todd McNair stormed off the field after practice, leaving the running backs to meet alone while coaches of other position groups addressed their players.
Sophomore C.J. Gable informed his fellow backs McNair was rightfully upset because of breakdowns in blocking.
“I just told them . . . we’re not putting in our full effort on our plays and we need to get the blocking down,” Gable said. “We’re not aggressive enough. We’re not doing it every down.”
Later, McNair chuckled and said he left practice without speaking to make a point.
“You can’t block, you can’t play,” he said. “We’ve got to protect our quarterback.
“That’s my way of saying it’s not acceptable. It’s not just about running the rock. You have to be a complete player.”
USC and Virginia have at least two things in common: Both teams relied heavily on their tight ends last season. And both must find a new starter in that spot this fall. For USC, that means replacing Fred Davis, the John Mackey Award winner who led the Trojans with 62 receptions for 881 yards and eight touchdowns in 2007.
Tight ends coach Brennan Carroll says he foresees the possibility of rotating several players.
Junior Anthony McCoy has suffered some drops in practice but is a solid blocker. Redshirt freshman Rhett Ellison has performed well and senior Jimmy Miller had a couple of good scrimmages. But the real buzz around practice has focused on Blake Ayles.
The 6-5, 255-pound freshman from Orange Lutheran High has shown the speed and hands to make big plays. Pete Carroll calls him “a real playmaker . . . he’s fast, light on his feet.” The question is: Can he handle the complexities of the position? In USC’s offense, the tight end must operate from numerous formations, sometimes shifting wide or lining up in the backfield.
“They have to know a lot,” Brennan Carroll said. “We haven’t had a lot of freshmen be successful coming into the program their first year, going back to Dominique Byrd, who didn’t get a whole bunch of playing time, and even Fred Davis didn’t get a whole bunch of playing time as a freshman.”
Cornerback Shareece Wright completed part of the workout but needs to participate in all drills the next two days to play against Virginia, Pete Carroll said.