ONE MEASLY MINUTE WAS ALL THAT SEPARATED USC FROM A TRIP TO the Orange Bowl. The Trojans had the ball on UCLA's 15-yard line. With one more first down USC would be Florida-bound. Instead Reggie Bush fumbled, leaving the Bruins one last gasp.
It was instructive to watch USC's offense come off the field following that miscue. What was striking, though, was not how concerned the Trojans seemed-- UCLA quarterback Drew Olson was intercepted on the next play: Game over, book your flight to Florida--but how young. There was true freshman Jeff Byers, who'd played much of the game at left guard, next to starting left tackle Sam Baker, a redshirt freshman whose good buddy Kyle Williams, a redshirt sophomore, had played half the game at right tackle. There was Dwayne Jarrett, a true freshman wideout who'd had a busy fall, what with turning 18, conquering homesickness and a case of the drops before emerging as USC's most dangerous receiving treat. There was true sophomore and future NFLer Bush, who splits carries with true sophomore and future NFLer LenDale White and would be named the team's MVP despite sharing the backfield with the winner of the Heisman Trophy.
Not only was this team loaded, it was loaded with youth, in keeping with one of Pete Carroll's primary coaching tenets. Carroll doesn't care what year you were born: If you can help him win, you'll be on the field. This philosophy was on display during the 2004 season, during which 10 true freshmen saw significant playing time, and it was on display in Heritage Hall last February as Carroll stood before his team and expressed his gratitude. National letter-of-intent day, on which the sun had set some 72 hours earlier, had been very, very good to USC. The coach thanked his players for their help in hosting recruits and selling the program. Now, for their viewing pleasure, a highlight tape had been assembled. "These are the guys you helped us recruit," said Carroll, "and these are the guys who are going to help us win."
The lights dimmed, and across the screen splashed the ultrabright future of an already formidable program.
There, on a pea-green rug against a hapless team in red, was Derrick Jones of Long Beach ( Calif.) Poly High, fielding a kickoff, then devouring yardage in impossibly long strides on his way to six points. Next came Paul Bunyan, turning the corner and laying waste to the secondary. Beg your pardon--that was Byers, from Loveland ( Colo.) High, pulling from his center position, scattering bodies like tenpins. He was followed by linebacker Keith Rivers, from Lake Mary, Fla., flying to the ball as if bound by the physics of some other universe. Pity, in a later clip, the left tackle asked to contain Jeff Schweiger, a defensive end who had 18 sacks for San Jose's Valley Christian High the previous season.
Why make the players sit through this preview of coming attractions? Part of the reason was that Carroll wanted to get them thinking. "The message was: Here they come," says receivers coach Lane Kiffin. "You better be ready, 'cause these guys are coming to take your spot."
It was no idle threat. "We're hoping we get surprised by [an incoming freshman] who can just knock someone out of their starting position," says Carroll. "Just take it." Since his arrival in Los Angeles, after the 1999 season, Carroll has displayed an open-mindedness that has not always been a hallmark of his profession. It has long been gospel among football coaches that youth, in excess, will get you beat.
Maybe you just need to find the right youths.
Last February, for the second time in two years, Carroll & Co. reaped the richest harvest of blue chips in the land. "Their recruiting under Carroll has been phenomenal," says Allen Wallace, national recruiting editor for Scout.com, which ranked the Trojans first each of the past two years and seventh the year before that-- Carroll's first at the school.
In addition to locking down California, Southern Cal has expanded its reach eastward, as the presence of wide receiver- tight end Fred Davis, Byers and Rivers makes clear. And the list goes on. After becoming friends early in the recruiting process, Byers and Rivers joined forces, working the phones to get other studs to follow in their footsteps. Then, at the Army All-American Bowl, an all-star game in San Antonio in early January, "Keith and I basically tag-teamed everybody down there," says Byers. "We said 'Hey, we're gonna get these guys no matter what.' Jeff Schweiger, Fred Davis, Dwayne Jarrett. We just hit 'em, and we hit 'em hard."