The decision wasn't easy for the family, remembers Nick Sr., because they had to leave Santa Margarita and move into their present rental home in Mission Viejo. "If you'd have asked me if we were going to move our family, I'd have told you that you were nuts," he says. "I never thought we'd have done it. But it was something that Mark wanted to do. There was just a greater variety of activities for him at Mission."

Meanwhile, Johnson tutored Sanchez in the craft of the most complex, cerebral position in sports. During the game, the quarterback's job starts the moment the play is called from the sideline: He must instantly comprehend every nuance—the formation, the personnel, the direction of the play, the blocking scheme, the routes of the receivers, the depth of his drop—and communicate that to his teammates. At the line of scrimmage, before the ball is snapped, he must read the defense—are the cornerbacks showing blitz? Will the linemen drop back into coverage?—and make any last-second changes. All this must be processed in 40 seconds, within the context of the game situation (What down is it? Is the team ahead or behind?). Oh, and then he must execute the play, oftentimes with a 300-pound defensive tackle in his grill and a hostile crowd jeering from the stands.

"It happens so fast on TV that people don't realize how much goes into each play," Sanchez says. "But it's so fun because nothing happens until you say go. It's cool to know that you're in charge of that."

Courtesy USC

In two seasons under Johnson's guidance, Sanchez led the Diablos to a 27-1 mark, including the California Interscholastic Federation Division II championship in 2004. He received numerous honors, including Parade magazine's Player of the Year, and became known for his arm strength and his improvisational skills. "Mark's a winner and a leader," Johnson says, "and a quarterback has to be that. The quarterback position is many things, but it's all about leading the team."

Sanchez, who had served as Palmer's ball-boy at Santa Margarita and calls him his "biggest idol," decided to follow in his footsteps and attend USC. Part of the lure was being able to stay close to his family (who attend nearly every practice and game). Another was to play under Pete Carroll, the former NFL head coach who has re-fashioned the Trojans into a perennial powerhouse by using a sophisticated, pro-style offense that highlights his signal-caller's athleticism and decision-making ability.

"Mark's got everything you want in a quarterback," Carroll says. "He's got a great arm, he moves beautifully, and he has a good feel for the game. Plus, he's smart and eager to learn."

Carroll has maintained a formidable, decades-long OC-USC pipeline that taps into one of the nation's most spirited high-school-football scenes. Approximately 15 players on the Trojans' current 105-man roster lived or played in Orange County, including another hotly recruited quarterback, Aaron Corp from Orange Lutheran. Mater Dei quarterback Matt Barkley, the nation's No. 1 senior recruit, has already committed to USC for next fall.

"It's the competition" that drives OC football, says USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. "The kids are going to very good football programs—the Mission Viejos, the Mater Deis, the Servites, the Los Alamitoses, the Orange Lutherans of the world—that place these guys in competitive environments and allow them to perform at a high level. By the time we get them, they're accustomed to a lot of the things we're already doing."

Corp credits the local coaches for churning out exceptional quarterbacks. "I think the Orange County coaches are probably the best high-school coaches in the country," he says. "When you have good coaches, you can produce quality quarterbacks because playing quarterback is not so much about being the best athlete but developing a skill set that has to be coached and worked on."

* * *

In the fall of 2005, Sanchez red-shirted his freshman year and began to learn USC's offense behind Leinart and Booty. He made headlines for the wrong reasons in the spring of 2006, when he was arrested after a female student accused him of sexual assault. He was also accused of underage drinking and using a false identification to gain entry to the 901 Club, a student hot spot on Figueroa Street. Sanchez was suspended from the team until law enforcement dropped the case because of insufficient evidence.

The topic remains a sensitive one, even two years later.

"From the outset, I maintained my innocence," Sanchez quietly says. "I was exonerated, exactly like we knew it would happen. But you see what kind of scrutiny you can potentially be under, you see how quickly things can turn."

"I'd have bet the farm that Mark wouldn't have any issues," his father says. "Unfortunately, he was placed in a bad situation and had to deal with that adversity."

Last year, Sanchez broke a bone in his thumb. He served as the backup until Booty was injured and missed three games. Sanchez guided the Trojans to two victories, including his mouthpiece masterpiece at Notre Dame. But he stumbled against Oregon with two second-half interceptions that derailed USC's national-title hopes.

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