USC loaded for another title run

He's spent five years learning how to talk like a proper So-Cal hipster, but a hint of his Louisiana patois seems to be creeping back into USC senior quarterback John David Booty's words this spring.

There may be a reason for that.

In January, Booty watched the BCS national title game between Ohio State and Florida at home with his family in Shreveport, knowing full well that he and the Trojans would have been playing if not for a face-plant against rival UCLA on the final weekend of the regular season.

It put a damper on Booty's rare homecoming, but don't feel too bad for him. He could be back in his native state next January, only this time with his helmet on. The national championship game returns to the New Orleans Superdome in January 2008, and lots of folks figure the Trojans will play for a third title since 2003 -- their first was an AP title and the second a sweep of the AP and BCS crowns.

"It would be special," Booty said carefully, not wanting to get too far ahead of things, considering the Trojans just started spring practices this week.

With 18 starters returning from a team that went 11-2, stomped Michigan in the Rose Bowl and finished ranked fourth in the nation, USC figures to be the preseason No. 1 next fall.

Moreover, Booty is among a small handful of early favorites for the Heisman Trophy, an award that USC has taken back to Heritage Hall three times since 2002.

For college football fans not draped in Cardinal & Gold, this surely feels a bit like "Groundhog Day." That's why we're not going to even mention that some gurus believe USC in February signed the nation's best recruiting class for the fourth consecutive year.

While Booty will earn much of the preseason hype after passing for 3,347 yards with 29 touchdowns last season as a first-year starter, USC's defense probably deserves at least equal billing. Ten starters are back from a speedy, physical group that led the Pac-10 and ranked among the national leaders in nearly every major statistical category.

The spring media guide ambitiously notes that "a case can be made that almost each returning starter is an All-American candidate." That seems overblown until a person scans the glittering returning talent, which includes All-American nose tackle Sedrick Ellis, defensive end Lawrence Jackson (20 career sacks), the nation's best troika of linebackers -- Keith Rivers, Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing -- and an athletic, experienced secondary, fronted by sophomore free safety Taylor Mays, a budding superstar.

Hey, it ain't really bragging if it's true.

Coach Pete Carroll, owner of a 59-6 record since 2002 -- an absurd .908 winning percentage -- said the defense has a chance to match the 2004 crew that gave up just 13 points and 279 yards per game. He said 17 or 18 players have starting potential.

"We should be pretty good," he said. "We have a lot of depth and a lot of guys who can give us some special things."

Meanwhile, on offense, what would be issues for other programs are, according to Carroll, merely "opportunities" at USC.

For example, losing receivers like Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith, who combined for 141 receptions and 21 touchdowns last season -- both figure to be picked on the first day of the NFL draft -- would be daunting for most programs.

Yet neither Booty nor Carroll seemed the least bit concerned. Junior Patrick Turner, who caught 29 passes last year, and redshirt freshman David Ausberry, both 6-foot-5, combine with 6-foot-3 sophomore Vidal Hazelton, to offer size, while redshirt freshman Travon Patterson contributes speed (a 10.4 in the 100 meters, in fact).

Two spots need to be filled on the offensive line. Senior Drew Radovich will move from guard to right tackle, while junior Jeff Byers, who's battled injuries since starting four games as a true freshman, likely will step in at guard. Nick Howell is the favorite to replace Ryan Kalil at center.

Running back is a huge question, but not in the typical way. The Trojans are now stocked with seven first- or second-year running backs who earned Parade prep All-American honors, including three who signed this winter. College coaches across the country will be eyeballing whoever falls in the pecking order as a potential transfer.

"I enjoy it. That was one of the reasons I came to USC -- to put myself in a situation where things like national championships can be possibilities."
-- John David Booty

Fine-tuning this embarrassment of riches will be the chief task this spring. The departure of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, the Oakland Raiders' new head coach, shouldn't be much of an issue because assistant head coach Steve Sarkisian, who tutors the quarterbacks, was ultimately in charge of the offense last year. The arrival of new receivers coach/passing game coordinator John Morton from the New Orleans Saints probably will add a few wrinkles. Morton already knows where everything is at the Superdome, which might come in handy.

Booty, despite his aw-shucks demeanor, seems perfectly comfortable with the upcoming media onslaught and Heisman hype that has been an annual part of USC football during the Carroll era.

"I enjoy it," he said. "That was one of the reasons I came to USC -- to put myself in a situation where things like national championships can be possibilities."

For Carroll, it's just business as usual. His players haven't succumbed to complacency or developed a jaded sense of entitlement following previous successes, so he doesn't expect it to be a problem this go-around.

"All that Heisman and national championship stuff -- we've been through that," he said. "I think we have a way to deal with it. And we haven't won a game yet. Until we start winning some football games, we don't have anything to yap about."

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.