One play away.
Mitch Mustain knows the phrase, knows the ramifications.
He traveled more than 1,500 miles from Arkansas to Los Angeles to become USC’s starting quarterback. Spent more than a year learning a new offense. And went up and down the depth chart with hopes of sticking at No. 1.
Saturday’s game against Arizona State at the Coliseum might have been Mustain’s opportunity.
But Mark Sanchez has recovered from a knee injury that briefly sidelined him during last week’s victory over Oregon and provided Mustain with his first taste of real playing time for the Trojans.
So Mustain waits. And prepares. He is content, for now, knowing he is one play away from getting back onto the field and leading the offense.
“Certainly, this is the best spot I’ve been in since I got here,” he said this week.
Mustain started and won eight games for Arkansas as a freshman but left after Razorbacks Coach Houston Nutt abandoned a pass-oriented offense and the team’s postseason disintegrated into a bad soap opera.
The after-season developments included the departure of Mustain’s high school coach, Guz Malzahn, who had been Arkansas’ offensive coordinator. There was also a well-publicized meeting between some football families, including Mustain’s, with Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles that led to accusations of meddling. And there was more drama when the contents of an angry e-mail sent by a booster to Mustain became public as part of a Freedom of Information Act request for Nutt’s cellphone records.
Still, with all that behind him, Mustain appeared to have the size, skills and experience to challenge Sanchez as USC’s leader.
But Sanchez’s skill set, combined with his three years in USC’s system, gave him a clear edge, one that the junior from Mission Viejo built upon daily in spring practice to win the starting job.
By the time USC traveled to Oregon State for its Pacific 10 Conference opener last month, Mustain had fallen to No. 4 on the depth chart behind Sanchez, junior Garrett Green and redshirt freshman Aaron Corp.
However, during practice last week, Mustain showed flashes of his Arkansas form and better command of the Trojans’ offense. Coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian elevated him to No. 2 for Oregon and he was in the game after Sanchez was injured in the third quarter.
After having a pass intercepted in the end zone in his first series, Mustain returned in the fourth quarter and threw a 59-yard touchdown pass to receiver David Ausberry.
The play signified Mustain’s growing comfort within the Trojans’ complex system.
“I kind of went through that phase where you’re just having to tear everything down and start over again,” he said. “I think I’m finally through that.”
Carroll does too.
“He had fun, loved it and had a big light in his eye because he had a blast,” Carroll said.
The look, and the confidence that produced it, was in stark contrast to the mostly tentative vibe Mustain gave off as he attempted to learn and consistently execute the Trojans’ offense.
In high school, Mustain deftly ran a spread attack almost exclusively from the shotgun formation. The scheme was similar at Arkansas, where his high school coach was hired as offensive coordinator.
Mustain anticipated a change when he transferred to USC, but the magnitude surprised him. Suddenly he was nearly always under center. He not only was required to go through progressions with receivers as plays developed, but also to recognize pressures and change blocking protections before the ball was snapped.
“It was a huge change in that department,” he said.
Sarkisian anticipated that Mustain would struggle.
“To me, he was a freshman when we got him,” Sarkisian said. “He was in such a different system that we re-taught him.”
Carroll and Sarkisian point to a meeting after training camp and a week of reflection before the Oregon State game as mile markers on Mustain’s road to maturity within the system.
“To be way behind everybody like he was, that’s not what anybody would have expected, himself included,” Carroll said, recalling the meeting. “But it was the facts of the time and so we just went straight up with it.
“It was a reality check. The truth. And it was a competitive approach: Is this it? Is this all you’ve got?”
Mustain acknowledged that the coaches were correct: He deserved to be slotted behind Sanchez and Corp, but vowed to continue working. Mustain got mop-up duty against Virginia and Ohio State then fell to No. 4 on the depth chart when coaches elevated Green to No. 2 for the Oregon State game.
The surprise shuffle was a reward for Green but also an exercise for Mustain and Corp, both of whom struggled in practice the week after the Ohio State game.
“Everyone who plays quarterback hits that,” Sarkisian said. “It feels like everything’s going on and you don’t even know what you’re doing. The easiest plays seem hard all of a sudden.”
So Mustain and Corp were instructed to mostly observe and concentrate on keeping things simple.
“It was a chance to step away from the situation and take a deep breath and kind of say, ‘OK, let me watch this for a couple days -- let me see how this happens and how to respond and how to handle it,’ ” Sarkisian said.
After the Trojans’ upset loss at Oregon State, Mustain came back with perhaps his best practice to date. He built on it the next day and was promoted to No. 2 for the Oregon game. He responded by completing five of eight passes for 111 yards.
The hesitation that hindered him for months mostly seems to have disappeared.
“It’s just part of learning,” Mustain said. “It’s hard to go through it full speed both mentally and physically. . . . I guess you finally hit that spot where they meet up with each other and you’re able to execute.”
Receiver Damian Williams, who played with Mustain in high school and at Arkansas, says that it is only a matter of time before his longtime teammate plays as fast and naturally as he did in high school.
“He just needs to feel comfortable,” Williams said. “He’s getting really close. He’s almost there.”
Until then, Mustain is content to be one play away.