READY FOR HIS CLOSE-UP
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Carson Palmer phoned a few days ago. Matt Leinart text-messaged the same day. John David Booty also checked in.
The former USC quarterbacks offered Mark Sanchez similar advice for today’s season opener against Virginia:
Soak it up. Live it up. Remember this game and the ones that follow because these will be some of the best times of your life.
Oh, and one other thing.
“Don’t get nervous,” Sanchez says, recalling the message from the men who led the Trojans to six consecutive Bowl Championship Series bowl games. “Just prepare.”
Sanchez, a fourth-year junior, might be more seasoned than his predecessors were to take over as starter. And he is hoping that gives him a head start on furthering their legacy.
Palmer was not even a year out of high school when he started the ninth game of his freshman season in 1998 under Coach Paul Hackett. Leinart never threw a college pass before he started the 2003 opener at Auburn as a third-year sophomore. Booty was a mop-up man for Leinart until he started the 2006 opener at Arkansas as a fourth-year junior.
Sanchez, 21, is a veteran by comparison. He started three midseason games in place of Booty last year, pulling out a victory over Arizona, picking apart Notre Dame and nearly engineering a comeback victory at Oregon.
The audition eliminates much of the uncertainty that accompanied the transitions from Palmer to Leinart and from Leinart to Booty.
“It just feels a little different,” Coach Pete Carroll says. “We had a couple big battles with Mark, big games. He handled those.”
Not that Sanchez’s debut lacks intrigue.
Three weeks ago, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Sanchez suffered a dislocated left kneecap and crumpled to the ground during warmups for practice. He has recovered to start against the Cavaliers, but can he sustain a hit? Will the knee hold up in what could be soggy conditions at Scott Stadium?
“I’m not even thinking about it,” he says.
Although Carroll said Sanchez will wear a knee brace today, he was without one during a light workout Friday for the first time since his injury. And he moved smoothly, even leaping to dunk a ball over the goal post crossbar.
Sanchez is focused on starting the same way Leinart and Booty did under Carroll -- with an efficient performance and a victory.
“I don’t feel nervous like I did for the three games last year,” he says. “Just more excited. A different kind of nerves.”
Sanchez will release some of the tension through a more animated leadership style than was shown by Palmer, Leinart or Booty.
Not much is hidden, good or bad, when Sanchez is on the field.
“I can’t go through it with a frown,” he says. “It’s too much fun.”
Teammates apparently appreciate Sanchez’s style. Last week, he was elected one of four team captains, the same honor Leinart and Booty earned as juniors.
Defensive players warm to Sanchez because he plays with passion.
“I like the way he’s vocal,” senior safety Kevin Ellison says. “I like his fire.”
So do Carroll and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
But both coaches put a premium on a quarterback’s efficiency running the offense, so they will monitor Sanchez’s demonstrativeness. They do not want to diminish his enthusiasm, “We just want to make sure we do a nice job of tempering it so that it works for him and everybody,” Carroll says.
Sanchez is expected to unsettle opposing defensive coordinators with mobility that allows him to find open receivers or scramble for yardage. Booty was highly accurate from the pocket but struggled to make plays on the run.
Sanchez gives the Trojans “a little bit more variety of second-chance opportunities,” Carroll says, adding, “Mark’s a little bit of a gambler -- he’s going to take a shot at stuff more like Leinart. And I’m hoping that he’ll do it well and do it in a timely fashion.”
For Sanchez, the time is now.
Palmer, Leinart and Booty all left their marks as starting quarterbacks for the Trojans during the Carroll era. Sanchez is ready to add his name to the continuum. “It’s exciting,” he says, “to know I’ll have my own little piece in there.”