Trojans set to begin post-Palmer era

Updated: August 26, 2003, 9:57 PM ET

LOS ANGELES -- Southern California finds out this weekend just how much Heisman Trophy winning-quarterback Carson Palmer will be missed.

The eighth-ranked Trojans open the season Saturday at No. 6 Auburn with a quarterback who has yet to throw a college pass -- redshirt sophomore Matt Leinart.

The change "is about as drastic as you can get," USC coach Pete Carroll said Tuesday. "Hopefully we are able to transition with a young guy."

Leinart watched Palmer lead the Trojans to an 11-2 record last season, and a No. 4 final ranking in the AP poll. Carroll hopes Leinart's a quick learner.

"He's a bright kid who knows our system very well," the coach said. "He's been around the whole evolution of it and has shown that he knows what's going on. Now he has to settle into a game and carry that out."

Leinart, among the nation's top high school quarterbacks out of Mater Dei H.S. in Santa Ana, is eager to play.

"Oh man, it's going to be fun," the 6-foot-5, 220-pounder said. "It's going to be a tough game, a tough crowd.

Leinart played briefly last year, getting into three games but not throwing a pass. His last pass was during a California-Florida high school all-star contest in more than two years.

"I feel like I haven't played for forever," he said.

Like Carroll, Leinart is beginning his third year at USC.

"What we want to have happen is to have our starting quarterback again benefit from the system and the players around him," Carroll said. "Carson Palmer had a marvelous year and really benefited from the system and the players around him."

Tackle Shaun Cody said USC's defense hopes it can take some pressure off Leinart.

"We have to take a leadership role. We have a young quarterback filling some big shoes," said Cody, who missed the second half of last season with a knee injury.

The Trojans return 14 starters from a team that won its final eight games, including a 38-17 rout of Iowa in the Orange Bowl.

Palmer isn't the only missing star, though. The Trojans also lost tailbacks Justin Fargas, Sultan McCullough and Malaefou MacKenzie, along with two-time All-American safety Troy Polamalu.

Hershel Dennis, who rushed for 198 yards on 49 carries last fall, will start at tailback, with freshmen Reggie Bush, LenDale White and Chauncey Washington the backups.

"The freshman class has really given us great depth and we have an opportunity to prepare them for the future," Carroll said. "And the same aspects we're hopeful for, we're also concerned with -- the young guys. It's different playing on your home field, as opposed to going to Auburn for the first game.

"There are going to be some surprises for them and we'll have to see how they respond. We just have to rely on some guys to grow up fast in their positions."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index