TO OUR READERS: This is the eighth in a series of stories previewing football teams in the Pac-10. Coming Sunday: Washington State.
Larry Smith, the retired former Arizona football coach, once said perhaps the toughest assignment he had when he coached USC was keeping great players motivated.
So it's instructive that when Trojans coach Pete Carroll commented about his latest team, he didn't focus on the loss of Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Carson Palmer, or the inexperience at tailback, or other strategical issues coaches normally mention in the preseason.
Carroll talked about how the team practiced.
"The No. 1 issue is work ethic," he said. "I was really fired up about it (after spring practice). We carried over the work ethic (from the 2002 season). That's what we'll focus on (at) camp."
It's no secret Carroll and his staff have assembled — one to 85 — the best talent in the Pac-10. And the gap's starting to widen.
But a loss of focus and concentration could derail the Trojans' championship aspirations. Carroll and the Trojans' faithful are hoping pure raw talent can compensate for inexperience, just as it does at Miami.
The Trojans haven't reached that level, but they believe they're on their way. Time will tell. So will this season.
The strong defense, anchored by tackle Shaun Cody and linebacker Matt Grootegoed, is set. So are a lot of other areas, such as wide receiver and the offensive line.
Still, "It feels like we're starting over," Carroll said, a reference to the loss of Palmer and late-season productive tailback Justin Fargas. "But I'm excited about all the challenges of the year."
Third-year sophomore Matt Leinhart, a carbon copy (6-foot-6, 225 pounds) of Palmer physically, won the quarterback job in the spring.
"Our standards have been set," Carroll said, putting the heat on Leinhart to be good immediately. "He's well schooled and ready to take over."
USC, Tailback U in its glory days, doesn't have a upperclassman among its tailbacks.
Recruiting junkies will recall USC didn't sign a tailback in February 1999 (a questionable decision), and only landed the since-departed Chris Howard (an Arizona State recruit) in 2000. USC's lone signee (ASU recruit Darryl Poston) in 2001 is also gone.
That leaves USC hoping one of three incoming freshmen can play like Tony Dorsett, or that sophomore Herschel Dennis will live up to his billing as the second-best RB prospect (behind Florida State's Lorenzo Booker) in the West two years ago.
"I'm anxious to see how that unfolds," said Carroll who, in keeping with another of his coaching philosophies to have recruits play offense and defense for a couple of days, has tried wide receiver recruit Whitney Lewis at tailback.
Through the early stages of practice, freshman Reggie Bush, a Parade magazine All-American, was the player who is making the Dorsett-like charge to the front.
"We uncovered who the best players are," Carroll said. "We've got a lot of developing to do."
With the right work ethic, Carroll believes he will.