Latino QB may go to NFL afterall

USC's Mark Sanchez appears headed to NFL.
By Gary Klein January 15, 2009

As of Wednesday night, USC quarterback Mark Sanchez appeared headed for the NFL.

What he does after talking with Trojans Coach Pete Carroll will be known this morning.

Sanchez is scheduled to hold a news conference at USC's Heritage Hall, and unless he changes his plans he is expected to announce that he will enter April's NFL draft.

Sanchez and Carroll declined to comment Wednesday, but the 22-year-old junior from Mission Viejo had already dropped strong hints about his plans, according to sources who did not want to be identified because they are close to the team and not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

However, one potential major hurdle remained: a final discussion with Carroll.

The USC coach met with Sanchez and then with the quarterback and his family before leaving for vacation last week. He was scheduled to talk again with Sanchez on Wednesday night or this morning.

Carroll influenced a similar decision at least once before, with former Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart.

In January 2005, Leinart was expected to announce that he would pass up his final season after winning the Heisman Trophy and leading the Trojans to consecutive national titles. But he opted to return, later acknowledging that an elbow injury that required surgery heavily influenced his decision.

Today is the deadline for draft-eligible players to submit paperwork to the NFL. There is a 72-hour grace period to rescind declarations without affecting NCAA eligibility if the player has not hired an agent.

The chance that Sanchez would turn pro seemed to increase on Wednesday when Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford announced that he would return for his junior season.

Bradford, the 2008 Heisman Trophy winner, was the third high-profile draft-eligible quarterback to announce he was staying in school. Texas' Colt McCoy said during the season that he would return. Florida's Tim Tebow and Bradford have since said they would remain in school.

ESPN reported earlier Wednesday that Sanchez planned to announce that he would enter the April draft, but its website also quoted Sanchez's father, Nick, saying that his son had not made up his mind.

Sanchez, 22, passed for 34 touchdowns with 10 interceptions in his first season as a starter. The Trojans fell short of reaching the Bowl Championship Series title game and finished 12-1. Sanchez capped the season by passing for four touchdowns and running for another in a 38-24 Rose Bowl victory over Penn State.

NFL scouts have projected the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Sanchez as a first-round draft pick. If he enters the draft, he could be initially slotted as the No. 2 quarterback behind Georgia's Matthew Stafford, who announced this month that he was giving up his final season to turn pro.

Sanchez would be the first starting quarterback in the Carroll era to leave before exhausting his eligibility. Carson Palmer, Leinart and John David Booty all spent five seasons at USC before entering the draft.

Bob Johnson, Sanchez's coach at Mission Viejo High and still a trusted advisor, did not offer a clue on the quarterback's decision when contacted by phone Wednesday night.

"We've talked a lot. We're very close," Johnson said. "I'm just a sounding board. Whatever he ends up doing, it's a great decision because it's what he wants. You weigh all options. It's a wonderful time in his life."

Sanchez's announcement will come two days after All-American safety Taylor Mays said he was returning for his senior season.

If Sanchez returns, he will guide an offense that must replace only one starter, receiver Patrick Turner.

The departure of Steve Sarkisian to Washington, however, would have Sanchez playing for a new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

Receivers coach John Morton was recently promoted to offensive coordinator. Carl Smith, who coached Trojans quarterbacks in 2004, has rejoined the staff and will call plays.

Aaron Corp and Mitch Mustain, who backed up Sanchez last season, said they were awaiting a decision that could possibly put them in competition with senior Garrett Green and freshman Matt Barkley for the starting job in the spring.

In regard to ESPN's report that Sanchez was turning pro, Mustain said, "Who knows? You hear about 500 different things. Either way, I'm kind of excited. We have a whole new staff, we've got a lot of new guys, so it will be interesting."

Corp said his mind-set and preparation for spring practice would not change if Sanchez enters the draft but allowed that, "You get a little bit more excited about the opportunity."

Times staff writer Eric Sondheimer contributed to this report.

gary.klein@latimes.com

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