Aaron Corp sprinted off USC’s practice field, pushed through the gate and hustled toward the locker room en route to an evening class.
With each step, the lanky sophomore seemed to grow surer of himself -- and his future.
“I’m really excited,” the usually laid-back Corp said, grinning widely. “There’s a lot of work ahead and I can’t wait to get started.”
Corp had reason to smile.
A few hours before Tuesday’s practice, coaches informed him that he was the Trojans’ starting quarterback for Saturday’s spring-ending scrimmage, a designation that will carry through summer and into training camp.
“A dream come true,” Corp said.
Corp, a former Orange Lutheran High star, held off an often spectacular charge from freshman Matt Barkley and was unfazed by junior Mitch Mustain’s experience as a starter at Arkansas in 2006.
Corp won the job by showing command of the offense and the huddle and playing near-error free.
Consider: Corp has completed 13 spring workouts without having a pass intercepted.
“At the end of the day, he’s been able to take the team down the field and not turn the ball over,” quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates said. “That’s the biggest separation right now.”
Bates’ word choice -- “right now” -- was intentional. And Coach Pete Carroll could not seem to repeat often enough that the competition to replace Mark Sanchez would continue.
“By no means is this thing over,” Carroll said.
But Carroll is well aware that no quarterback during his tenure -- Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty or Sanchez -- was unseated as the starter after winning the job in the spring.
Corp also knows the history.
He acknowledged, however, that the precocious Barkley and the experienced Mustain would not cede the role come August.
“Basically, the way it was presented to me was, ‘It’s yours to lose, so you just have to keep competing,’ ” Corp said. “If Matt’s playing better or Mitch is playing better, that’s the guy they’re going to go with. So nothing’s set in stone.”
That attitude appeared to help fuel Corp’s spring surge. He entered workouts with a slight edge based on finishing the 2008 season No. 2 on the depth chart.
He extended the gap with his poised play, his running ability and, in the last week, his accuracy throwing deeper routes. “He’s done everything he can to maximize this opportunity,” Carroll said.
Barkley did the same, but he acknowledged that his inexperience in the Trojans’ system prevented him from feeling completely comfortable while trying to manage all of the details of the play calls.
Bates emphasized that there was no plan to redshirt Barkley, who is No. 2 on the depth chart. Carroll said the four-year starter at Santa Ana Mater Dei High could start, “if he gets caught up.”
“Aaron’s had a great camp -- he deserves it,” Barkley said. “But it’s still on, no doubt about that.”
Mustain was disappointed but reiterated that he had not considered transferring.
“I’m too close to my degree right now, so it would be kind of a joke to leave,” he said.
Bates said the quarterbacks received about the same amount of series and pointed out that each took a turn as the starter in three scrimmages.
“We’re not trying to be shady or anything like that,” Bates said.
Asked if he felt he got a fair chance to compete for the job, Mustain replied that he had talked to Bates about that but then declined to share the details of the conversation.
“I guess it depends on how you interpret drives or reps or whatever,” Mustain said, calmly. “That’s their interpretation and that’s something I’ve talked to them about, but the point is we’ve just got to keep battling.”
Corp was instructed to do the same.
Bates told him to avoid looking in the rearview mirror and make the position his own.
“And that’s the only way he should go about it,” Carroll said.