LOS ANGELES — The rebuilding job facing Pete Carroll this month would put most college football programs in a stationary stall.
Yet to most people who don't work on USC's downtown campus, the Trojans' tasks apparently don't even resemble a speed bump.
Even with just 12 returning starters — perhaps none in the defensive front seven — and even with three inexperienced quarterbacks battling for the starting job, the Trojans are the runaway pick by the media and Carroll's fellow coaches to rule the West Coast again. Such is the respect and fear engendered by seven consecutive Pac-10 titles, BCS bowl berths and 11-victory seasons for Carroll's powerhouse program.
"Nothing has really changed for us," Carroll said. "We've been able to see the approach and the philosophy work for us. We've been able to maintain the level of coaching it takes to stay at this level. I have no idea why it should change, although the rest of the coaches in this league should have something to say about that."
Those coaches respect talent, and USC has been rolling in it ever since Carroll and his indefatigable recruiting machine took charge. The spots vacated by Mark Sanchez, Rey Maualuga, Fili Moala, Brian Cushing and Patrick Turner are being circled by a wealth of the nation's top players, all eager to become a memorable part of the Trojans' tradition.
Nobody is more eager than quarterbacks Aaron Corp, Matt Barkley and Mitch Mustain, who still haven't settled the duel for Sanchez's starting spot. Although Corp won the job coming out of the spring, Carroll repeatedly has said things could change during the four weeks of camp.
Barkley was the nation's top high school recruit, and he graduated from high school one semester early so he could participate in spring drills. He seems to be keeping pace with Corp, who isn't about to give up his chance to follow Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty and Sanchez.
"I've talked to Carson, and I talked to Mark this morning," Corp said after the Trojans' first fall practice on Saturday. "They say, 'Just take over,' and that's what I'm trying to do."
As always, USC's quarterback will have plenty of options. Tailbacks Stafon Johnson and Joe McKnight head a group of six ball-carriers with topflight talent, while Damian Williams and Ronald Johnson are prolific receivers. The offensive line will be a mix of returning starters and new contributors, but every candidate is prodigiously talented.
With just three starters back, the defense will rely heavily on Taylor Mays, the All-American safety who declined to join Sanchez in the NFL draft. Mays has emerged as a primary team leader, bringing players together on the practice field and in everyday campus life.
"It's tough, but it's natural for people to step up," Mays said. "When you know what it takes to be successful, you pass that down in your program to the next group of guys. ... I don't feel like I have to speak up to be a leader. I feel like the best way to lead is by example. I can say the best speech in the world, but if I'm not out there working hard in practice, it doesn't mean anything."
The turnover extends to Carroll's coaching staff — and the new guys there seem to be just as talented. Assistant head coach Jeremy Bates is the newest coaching prodigy put in charge of the Trojans' offense, running a scheme he inherited from Steve Sarkisian, Lane Kiffin and others in Carroll's system.
"I always tell these guys, 'You're the best players in the country,'" Bates said. "'Go ahead and show off.' I don't mean that in a boastful way. Just go out and show them why you're a USC Trojan."