Mark Sanchez spoke to Carson Palmer.
A phone call to Matt Leinart was on Sanchez’s Tuesday night to-do list.
And between tapping the brains of Heisman Trophy winners, the USC quarterback met separately with new offensive coordinator John Morton and with Coach Pete Carroll.
It was only the start of what could be a tough stretch of days as Sanchez seriously contemplates the question Palmer and Leinart faced after their junior seasons: Should he return to USC for a final season of eligibility or turn pro?
“It’s emotionally difficult,” Sanchez said this week. “I’m being tugged both ways.”
Draft-eligible juniors and sophomores have until Jan. 15 to make themselves available for April’s NFL draft.
Sanchez emerged from a Tuesday meeting with Carroll carrying a thin binder of information that was heavy on numbers.
“Just the facts,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez received the draft projection he requested from the NFL but neither he nor Carroll would divulge the specifics.
“It’s good,” Sanchez said, adding, “It doesn’t take into account who’s coming out, so that could change.”
Carroll cautioned last week that Sanchez should not get caught up in the euphoria that surrounded his Rose Bowl performance against Penn State. The fourth-year junior accounted for all five USC touchdowns, completing 80% of his passes for 413 yards and four touchdowns and running for another score in a 38-24 victory.
But NFL team scouts, given anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the topic, said Sanchez enhanced his draft stock with his stellar play against the Nittany Lions.
“He was on the big stage and he performed,” one scout said. “Many of the general managers and coaches saw that game, and that will be the performance they remember.”
Even so, the scout said Sanchez would be better served to stay at USC for another season, estimating he would be a late first-round pick were he to leave school early.
“He needs more seasoning at the position, but the skill set is there,” said the evaluator, who would rank him as the third- or fourth-best quarterback if he were to come out now. “He’s not NFL-ready, but he has NFL tools.”
Another scout agreed, saying the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Sanchez would benefit from another year to grow stronger and a chance to show that the Rose Bowl was not a fluke.
“That was a breakout game for him, but now I’d like to see him do that repeatedly in the season,” he said.
Sanchez, 22, will monitor the decisions of Oklahoma sophomore Sam Bradford and Georgia junior Matthew Stafford. Both quarterbacks are regarded as potential high draft picks if they come out this year.
While acknowledging that, “all I’ve ever dreamed about was being a pro quarterback,” Sanchez also said, “I’m going to investigate as much as I can. If it’s not there, I’m coming back.”
That’s what Palmer and Leinart did.
“Carson said he didn’t have quite the opportunity that I do because his junior year wasn’t quite as successful as mine,” said Sanchez, who passed for 34 touchdowns with 10 interceptions and led the Trojans to a 12-1 record.
In 2001, Carroll’s first season, the Trojans completed a 6-6 season with a 10-6 loss to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Palmer, projected to be selected behind quarterbacks David Carr and Joey Harrington in the draft, opted to return.
“It was an easy decision for him,” said Bill Palmer, Carson’s father. “His attitude at the time was, ‘I haven’t done anything yet.’ ”
In 2002, Palmer caught fire in the second half of the season and won the Heisman Trophy. He was selected No. 1 overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2003 draft.
Bill Palmer said he would advise Sanchez that he should “unequivocally, absolutely not,” turn pro before exhausting his eligibility.
“He would be a front-runner for the Heisman on a great team,” Bill Palmer said. “You can never recapture those years. I can’t even imagine why he would do it.”
Leinart had already won the Heisman and two national titles when he went through what turned into an agonizing decision-making process in January 2005.
Some have speculated that Leinart left millions of dollars on the table by not turning pro after winning the 2004 Heisman and starring in the 2005 Bowl Championship Series title game, theorizing that the San Francisco 49ers would have chosen him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft.
But Leinart’s left elbow required surgery, a factor that influenced his decision to come back to the Trojans. USC returned to the BCS title game, losing to Texas, and Leinart was taken 10th by the Arizona Cardinals.
Sanchez knew the history when he met with Morton on Monday.
“I just told him to look at all his options, talk to everybody, formulate your best opinion and do what’s right for you,” Morton said, chuckling. “Then I said, ‘But I want you to come back.’ ”
If Sanchez returns, he will lead an experienced USC offense that is expected to be the strong suit for a team that could make another run at a national title.
“This is a lot different than a game where you can go out and complete a pass and get settled into it,” he said. “This is way tougher.”
Sanchez recalled his high school days when he made what he described as the two toughest decisions of his football career.
After his sophomore year at Santa Margarita High, he decided to transfer to Mission Viejo. Two years later, he decided to sign with USC.
“I’m just glad I have a good support group,” he said. “I’ll get all the right information from Coach Carroll and talk to my family and go from there.”