The moment Mark Sanchez cemented himself as USC's starting quarterback this season didn't come when he led the team to a fourth-quarter comeback win over Arizona last season in his first career start. It didn't come when he threw four touchdowns passes and no interceptions in a 38-0 rout of Notre Dame in South Bend. It didn't even come this spring when coach Pete Carroll named him the starter in April, leading to No. 6 jerseys being printed and sold in the campus bookstore.
It came after he dislocated his kneecap on Aug. 9, sidelining him for nearly two weeks.
It happened as he relaxed inside a golf cart and watched Mitch Mustain throw one mind-boggling interception after another in practices. As he sat on the bench and watched Aaron Corp struggle to hit open receivers and run out of the pocket the moment he felt pressured. As he stood on the sidelines and watched Garrett Green play as well as a quarterback turned safety turned wide receiver who was asked to turn into a quarterback again could.
It was then that USC fans, and maybe even some of its players, began to realize what USC coaches have known all along. This supposed quarterback competition was never much of a competition at all.
Sanchez is USC's best quarterback and it isn't even close.
That the gap is as wide as it is may come as a surprise to those that figured Mustain, who went 8-0 as the starting quarterback at Arkansas as a freshman in 2006, would win the job after proving his mettle in the SEC with back-to-back wins over ranked Alabama and Auburn, the latter coming on the road.
The realization that Mustain's Arkansas credentials meant nothing at USC came fairly quickly for the quarterback after he reviewed the Trojans' telephone-book-sized playbook. His transition is basically the equivalent of an award-winning cook at the Whole Hog Café taking a job as a sushi chef at Katsuya. He's literally starting from scratch with no carryover.
"Completely different," said Mustain when asked to compare what he did at Arkansas to USC. "It's not even close. What we ran at Arkansas was hybrid of a couple different things, we really didn't have a solid philosophy where as here we have a solid philosophy that we follow and everything we do is based off of that. We have everything set around a core. We didn't have that at Arkansas, everything was pretty scattered."
Learning USC's pro style, timing-based offense can often be like learning how to tango. You will invariably stumble and look like you're moving with two left feet as you count your steps but once it becomes second nature, it's a thing of beauty.
"We do a variety of different personnel groupings and have a variety of different concepts, not only in the run game but in the pass game and the quarterback in our system is responsible for a lot of things," said offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. "They have responsibilities in the run game and the pass game and the recognition of coverages is big because so much of our passing is timing oriented. If you struggle to recognize coverages, it's going to take time, but once you get it, it becomes second nature and you can just go out there and play."
It's a playbook that has taken all of its starting quarterbacks about two years to master. Even Carson Palmer, who had to learn it on the fly as a junior during Carroll's first season at USC, didn't break out of his mistake-prone underachieving shell and into a Hesiman winner until the end of his second season. Matt Leinart spent two years as Palmer's backup, John David Booty spent three years as Leinart's backup and outside of three starts last season, Sanchez spent three years behind both Leinart and Booty waiting for his opportunity to be the starter.
"From Leinart to J.D. to now Mark and even with Carson, it wasn't until the end of his second year that he really exploded. It takes time," said Sarkisian, who believed since spring practices that Sanchez gives the team the best chance to win. "We've said that all along. We try to push these guys as far as we can push them as quickly as we can but invariably it takes time."
Sanchez returned to practice this week, about a week ahead of schedule, and quickly reinserted himself as the leader of the team, barking out instructions to receivers and helping the quarterbacks during their drills. Even while Sanchez was sidelined he would help Mustain and Corp with the offense, talking to them after their mistakes. He is more like Carroll than any quarterback the coach has ever had at USC. He is a fiery ball of emotion on the field, but a media darling off it as he shakes hands with every reporter who interviews him and personalizes every autograph he is asked to sign.
"I think I'm a lot like Carroll," said Sanchez, who expects to start the season opener against Virginia. "He says when a good friend comes out and watches one of our practices he wants the first thing for them to say is, 'Man, that looks fast and wow, they play with great effort.' I don't want anyone to ever see me play and not be able to notice that this guy loves what he's doing. It would kill me if anyone ever thought I was just going through the motions or I wasn't into it. I will never have that happen. Some people call it an X-factor, some people call it charisma, but I know that I have to be the quarterback and lead the troops and get guys going."
While Mustain may be the most physically gifted quarterback on the roster, he has looked lost at times as he continues to struggle with his progressions, often throwing interceptions that Carroll calls "game-crushers." It's decisions like that which have not only made Sanchez the clear-cut starter but also catapulted Corp, a redshirt freshman, past Mustain in the eyes of many on the team. With a stingy defense and an embarrassment of riches at running back where six potential game-changing ball carriers litter the backfield, the Trojans would rather go with a solid game manager like Corp than a risk-taker like Mustain.
"We want to find out who is ready to handle the game and make good choices and give us a chance to win," said Carroll. "We're not looking for our quarterback to be spectacular and carry the whole load. We never have."
Mustain was far more comfortable transitioning from high school to college than he has been from Arkansas to USC. No high school quarterback had an easier transition into the college game than Mustain did during his freshman season. He arrived in Fayetteville with his high school coach, Gus Malzahn, who was hired as the Hogs' offensive coordinator along with three of his high school teammates, including receiver Damian Williams, who transferred to USC with him. In terms of his comfort level with his offensive coordinator, Mustain was actually ahead of the upperclassmen dealing with Malzahn for the first time. That couldn't be further from the truth at USC, where even Green, who has played a handful of positions at USC after arriving on campus as a quarterback three years ago, has a better command of the offense than Mustain.
"Garrett Green is further than [Mustain and Corp] in terms of verbiage," said Carroll. "He's smoother with the signals and all that stuff because he's been through it all. They still have a ways to go. They're not there yet."
There has always been an inclination for fans and outsiders to clamor for the backup quarterback to unseat the new starting quarterback during Carroll's tenure at USC. Leinart was supposed to replace Palmer in the starting lineup in 2001 after the Trojans started the season 2-5. Booty was supposed to replace Leinart after USC lost to Cal in 2003. And Sanchez actually did end up replacing Booty for three games after the senior quarterback broke his finger in a loss to Stanford.
The current situation at quarterback for USC could best be compared to the situation prior to the 2003 season when a two-year backup (Leinart) beat out a transfer quarterback that had starting experience at a big-time program (Brandan Hance, who started nine games at Purdue as a sophomore), a high-school prodigy (Booty) and a versatile quarterback willing to play some wide receiver to get on the field (Matt Cassel). It seems silly to think of that as a competition now and the same may be said about the competition heading into the 2008 season years down the line in retrospect.
"No disrespect to the other quarterbacks, but Mark is a complete quarterback," said linebacker Rey Maualuga. "He's overall the best quarterback of the three and he gives us the best chance to win."