Commentary

The Trojans who defined the decade

Updated: December 31, 2009, 7:46 PM ET
By Steve Mason | ESPN Los Angeles

USC's football program was a ramshackle mess when the millennium began. In California real estate terms, it was a "tear-down." The land under it was valuable, but it was time to demolish the structure and build something shiny and new.

With USC finishing the 2000 season at 5-7 and failing to scratch to bowl eligibility for a second straight year, Trojans athletic director Mike Garrett had to do something. Coach Paul Hackett was fired, and the Heisman Trophy-winning AD turned to the logical choice -- Dennis Erickson.

That's right. For those too young to remember, Erickson was at the top of USC's wish list, and he promptly signed an extension to stay with Oregon State. It took 18 days for USC to replace Hackett, and the job was offered to then-Oregon coach Mike Bellotti and Mike Riley, who was still under contract with the San Diego Chargers.

Finally, former New York Jets and New England Patriots coach Pete Carroll was tapped to take over the Trojans' storied football program, and although alumni and media types grumbled about "the fourth choice," college football in Los Angeles hasn't been the same since.

After a 6-6 2001 season that included a loss in the Las Vegas Bowl to Utah, the cardinal-and-gold finished the decade winning 91 games, made eight bowl appearances and won two national titles.

The most important Trojan this past decade obviously has been Carroll. None of the Trojans' success would have been possible without the enthusiastic, silver-haired Peter Pan of college football preaching to anyone and everyone who would listen the need to "Always Compete."

But no coach wins without great players, so as someone who has spent a huge chunk of the past 10 years covering USC football, here is my list of the 10 greatest Trojans football players of the decade.

1. Matt Leinart, quarterback (2001 to '05): Nobody was more valuable to the Trojans during the decade than this signal-caller out of Mater Dei High School who would become the sixth Heisman Trophy winner in USC history. After backing up Carson Palmer as a redshirt freshman, he took over the reins at quarterback and was a staggering 37-2 as a starter. He guided USC to two straight national championships and was a Vince Young scamper away from making it three in a row.

Matt LeinartJeff Lewis/US Presswire

2. Troy Polamalu, safety (1999 to '02): Polamalu's college career looks better and better as the years pass. Despite all the offensive success that Carroll's teams have enjoyed, defense always has been the calling card, and Polamalu's toughness and knack for creating turnovers set the tone early in the decade. Even when things were tough, such as 2001's 6-6 season, he racked up 118 tackles, snagged three interceptions (two returned for touchdowns), blocked three punts and forced two fumbles. By the time he wrapped up his career, he was USC's first All-American safety since Mark Carrier and its first two-time All-American since Tony Boselli. His greatest impact was setting the ball-hawking tone for Carroll's defenses for years to come.

Troy PolamaluOtto Greule Jr/Getty Images

3. Sedrick Ellis, defensive tackle (2004 to '07): Ellis was the anchor for USC's spectacular defense in the middle of the decade with 144 total tackles, 29.5 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks. He won the Morris Trophy (for best defensive lineman in the Pac-10) for his work in the 2006 season and again in 2007, and after much speculation, he returned for his senior season and won the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. I love this guy for his decision to return for his last year of eligibility even though he would have been a top-10 pick in the NFL draft, and he did not disappoint (or lower his draft stock) as a senior.

Sedrick Ellis Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

4. Carson Palmer, quarterback (1998 to '02): Palmer won the starting job at USC as a true freshman nine games into the 1998 season, becoming USC's second true freshman to start at quarterback. He spent the bulk of his career building a foundation for what would be a sensational senior season in 2002. Palmer became USC's fifth Heisman winner with more than 3,900 yards passing and 33 touchdowns versus 10 interceptions in 2002, and he willed the Trojans to their first of seven BCS bowl appearances, where they crushed Iowa 38-17 in the Orange Bowl. I love that this guy spent three years getting lessons in hard knocks, then blossomed under the guidance of Carroll and offensive guru Norm Chow.

Sedrick EllisStephen Dunn/Getty Images

5. Reggie Bush, running back (2003 to '05): I know what you are saying: How can Reggie Bush be only No. 5 on the USC all-decade team? There is no disputing his on-the-field greatness. His junior (and final season) was one for the record books, with an average of 222 all-purpose yards per game (including a staggering 513 yards from scrimmage against Fresno State). But although Bush is a two-time All-American and the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner, I have dropped him down the list for a few reasons. First there is the scandal surrounding the improper benefits Bush and his family are alleged to have received from a San Diego street agent while he was in college. The NCAA's investigation into what the family received and who knew about the situation has brought dishonor upon the program. Also, I still have trouble forgiving Bush for his misguided lateral in the second quarter of the 2005 Rose Bowl that halted a drive and dramatically changed the game's trajectory.

Reggie BushLisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

6. Lofa Tatupu, linebacker (2003 to '04): I have seen a lot of great linebackers at USC, but for my money, this guy was the best. Tatupu was not the biggest, fastest or most explosive, but he was a one-man wrecking crew. He started 25 games in two seasons and led the program with 202 total tackles as USC won national championships in both of his seasons as a starter. He also registered 9 sacks, 25 tackles for loss, 7 picks (with 164 yards in returns), 3 fumble recoveries, 3 forced fumbles and 18 pass deflections. USC was 25-1 with Tatupu as a starter.

Lofa TatupuJeff Gross/Getty Images

7. Brian Cushing, linebacker (2005 to '08): Linebackers coach Ken Norton likes to call Cushing "The Bulldog of Bergen" (he hails from Bergen County, N.J.) because of his ability to play through pain and perform at a constant level of reckless abandon. He had one speed (hair on fire), and with 177 career tackles, he sometimes saved his most spectacular efforts for the big games. For example, in the 2006 Rose Bowl, he had seven tackles, including five solo tackles, plus two sacks in USC's 32-18 win over Michigan. He was the first of the 2008 Trojans' brilliant quartet of linebackers to be taken in the 2009 NFL draft, as the Houston Texans selected him 15th.

Brian CushingJeff Golden/Getty Images

8. Ryan Kalil, center (2003 to '06): One of the reasons Matt Leinart had so much time to throw and Reggie Bush and LenDale White had big holes to run through was the work of Kalil. He is one of only two Trojans offensive linemen this decade to win the Morris Award. Kalil won 36 games and lost only three as the starting center at USC. He was part of two national championships and two BCS title games, and by the time he was a senior, he was not only a stalwart on the O-line but also team captain.

Ryan KalilChristian Petersen/Getty Images

9. Lawrence Jackson, defensive end (2004 to '07): Best nickname of the decade hands down -- LoJack, the pride of Inglewood, Calif. Jackson holds the distinction of starting 51 of 52 games in his four years in cardinal-and-gold. He was an integral fixture of the Trojans' defense for a big chunk of the decade with 181 tackles, 52 tackles for loss and 30.5 sacks. Like Sedrick Ellis, he easily could have jumped to the NFL after his junior season, but he returned to USC for the 2007 season, which culminated in another Rose Bowl win.

Lawrence JacksonSouthern California/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

10. Dwayne Jarrett, wide receiver (2004 to '06): Jarrett is a two-time All-American and is the Trojans' all-time leader in both receptions (216) and touchdown catches (41). As a freshman, Jarrett stepped up and helped fill the void left by the early departure of Mike Williams, finishing the 2004 season with 55 catches for 849 yards and 13 touchdowns. As a sophomore, he became Matt Leinart's favorite target, and he will always be remembered for his clutch grab on fourth-and-9 with less than a minute left at Notre Dame. (That play set the stage for the famous "Bush Push.") Jarrett capped off his career as MVP of the 2007 Rose Bowl with 203 receiving yards and two touchdown catches.

Dwayne JarrettChristian Petersen/Getty Images

Steve Mason is co-host of "The Mason and Ireland Show" on 710 ESPN

Steve Mason

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Steve Mason is a co-host of the "Mason & Ireland" show on 710 ESPN Radio in Los Angeles.

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