By John Henderson Denver Post Staff Writer
When in the history of college football has a two-time defending national champion on the verge of a dynasty ever had to defend itself? It's happening at Southern California, where critics say the Trojan horse is starting to crumble.
First, coach Pete Carroll suffered an exodus of four assistants who catapulted themselves to better jobs. Gone are offensive coordinator Norm Chow (Tennessee Titans), quarterbacks coach Carl Smith (Jacksonville Jaguars), defensive line coach Ed Orgeron (Mississippi) and offensive line coach Tim Davis (Miami Dolphins).
Then came word that Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart said he might have rethought his decision to stay in school had he known about Chow, who, some say, wanted more credit than Carroll was giving. This was before Leinart had elbow surgery that kept him out all spring.
When spring ball came around, sitting on the sideline were five starters. Four were for academics: tailback LenDale White, a Chatfield High School graduate; defensive end Frostee Rucker, a Colorado State transfer; tight end Dominique Byrd; and defensive tackle Manuel Wright. The other was cornerback Eric Wright, who was charged with rape. The case was dropped, but it's now in the hands of a student-conduct investigation and he's not expected back.
This was all before Byrd got his jaw broken by wide receiver Steve Smith, who owed him money for video game bets and took up Byrd's challenge for a fight.
So let's just say USC's celebration of its undefeated season seems as distant as the Marcus Allen era.
Sure, USC will be a probable unanimous No. 1 in preseason, but the nation will wait for the cracks to become chasms.
"We are going to shock people that doubt us," Carroll said.
He has reason to be cheerful. The cracks aren't that big. Manuel Wright is the only Trojan whose fall eligibility is in danger, and Leinart will start throwing soon - much sooner than he did last year, when he recovered from a sore arm.
As for Leinart missing Chow, Carroll dipped into the NFL for three staff replacements and promoted Lane Kiffin from receivers coach. At 29, he's the youngest offensive coordinator in the six major Bowl Championship Series leagues.
"The offense should improve," Carroll said. "The offensive line, a year ago, had never played. They played the whole season and have been through camp together. They are a savvy and experienced group."
But if Manuel Wright doesn't return, they will be reaching at nose tackle and may start a true freshman at middle linebacker.
No school has three-peated since Yale in 1888. If the Trojans do, they will have earned it.
Bramlet has Wyoming poised to make some noise
College football reporter John Henderson addresses the top happenings out of spring practice:
TEAMS ON THE RISE
Georgia Tech: Should have one of nation's best defenses with nine starters back and erratic QB Reggie Ball showing signs of stardom this spring. Also has one of nation's most underrated receivers, Calvin Johnson.
Florida: Ron Zook didn't coach well, but he sure did recruit. Urban Meyer will find out as he works with talented QB Chris Leak and his 5,632 yards and 45 TDs the past two seasons. Scratch this note if tailback DeShawn Wynn doesn't get academically eligible.
Tennessee: It's Vols' turn to enter national title picture. They return 15 starters, including TB Gerald Riggs, who made Auburn look like Auburn High in SEC title game. Five return from a terrific front seven.
Iowa State: Cyclones in Big 12 title game? Why not? They're talking about one of school's best teams after losing only two impact players from last year's national surprise. Sophomore QB Bret Meyer is getting better. Hit 22-of-34 passes for 318 yards and a TD as starters rolled up 523 yards in spring game.
Wyoming: Utah is rebuilding and Wyoming is rolling. Cowboys have 19 starters back from team that beat UCLA in Las Vegas Bowl, and Corey Bramlet lit up last controlled scrimmage of spring, hitting 11-of-15 for 111 yards and two TDs.
BIGGEST REBUILDING JOBS
Indiana: It gave up 453 yards and 31 points a game last year, and the offense loses quarterback Matt LoVecchio and star receiver Courtney Roby. Leading rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis transferred to Mississippi. What was Terry Hoeppner thinking taking this job?
Cincinnati: Lost 10 starters on defense and nine on offense and is coming off a season-ending 70-7 drubbing against Louisville. At least Bearcats are leaving Conference USA for a weaker league: the Big East.
Washington: Your 14 points per game was last in the nation and your two top quarterbacks return in awful Casey Paus and erratic Isaiah Stanback. What do you do? Add new coach Tyrone Willingham, who was run out of Notre Dame for failing to develop an offense. The spring game score: 3-0.
California: Forget replacing QB Aaron Rodgers, tailback J.J. Arrington and receiver Geoff McArthur. Cal loses eight defensive starters. The Bears must hope Jeff Tedford's three consecutive strong recruiting classes kick in, starting with sensational soph TB Marshawn Lynch.
West Virginia: The Mountaineers blew it. Last year was their year. Now they must replace their top two quarterbacks with either redshirt freshman Pat White or sophomore Adam Bednarik, who sat out spring with shoulder surgery. White did rack up 235 yards total yards offense in the spring game. Good. They also lost tailback Kay-Jay Harris.
BEST QUARTERBACK BATTLES
California: Who's Cal's next QB to the NFL? Check back this fall. Highly acclaimed JC transfer Joseph Ayoob went 7-of-9 for 192 yards and a TD in the spring game, while redshirt freshman Nate Longshore hit 5-of-6 for 106 yards and three scores. It's too close to call.
Oklahoma: A dead heat among junior Paul Thompson, who redshirted last year; sophomore Tommy Grady, last year's backup; and redshirt freshman Rhett Bomar, the star recruit from 2004. None looked good rotating in spring game. Thompson threw two interceptions, and Grady and Bomar combined for 14-of-34 with two picks.
Ohio State: Junior quarterback Justin Zwick likely will start the opener against Miami of Ohio, but only because junior Troy Smith is still suspended for accepting money from a booster. Expect Smith to start Game 2 against Texas.
Florida State: Bobby Bowden bucked the critics and is sticking with son Jeff as offensive coordinator. Spring didn't prove 'Noles' 63rd-ranked passing attack will improve much with weak-armed junior Wyatt Sexton hanging on to the job. No. 1 offense scored one TD all spring against the No. 1 defense.
Miami: Sophomore Kyle Wright, Larry Coker's top recruit from 2003, was named starter over freshman Kirby Freeman after throwing for 159 yards and two TDs in spring game. Freeman went 7-for-18 for 107 yards and two picks.
Brian Calhoun, RB, Jr., Wisconsin, from Colorado: Will start for home-state Badgers after beating out last year's backup to Anthony Davis, Booker Stanley.
Ben Olson, QB, Fr., UCLA, from Brigham Young: Looked shaky all spring after two-year mission to Canada. He's fighting senior David Koral and freshman Pat Cowan to back up senior Drew Olson (no relation), who's coming off knee surgery.
Johnny DuRocher, QB, So., Washington, from Oregon: Getting equal chance to win job from struggling incumbents Casey Paus and Isaiah Stanback, plus sophomore Carl Bonnell.