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Sanchez showed maturity in taking responsibility for the defeat, telling reporters, "Last week I was the hero, and this week I am a zero."

In the spring, with Booty drafted into the NFL, Sanchez won the starting job after a spirited competition with transfer Mitch Mustain and freshman Corp. "Mark assumed the spot very comfortably," Carroll says. "He asserted himself in the huddle and with his guys. It's clear that this is the right decision for us at this time."

"We saw tremendous leadership ability with Mark," Sarkisian says, "a guy who enabled the other 10 guys on the field to go out and play even better. I think the team felt his energy, felt his competitiveness."

Courtesy USC
Courtesy USC

In his first official appearance as the starter, at the annual intra-squad scrimmage at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Sanchez flashed his play-making potential. Facing the first-team defense, he faded back and hit sophomore receiver Ronald Johnson streaking down the right sideline for a 37-yard touchdown hookup. Afterward, with a relieved grin, he dutifully completed postgame duties: he iced his right shoulder, addressed myriad television and print reporters, and signed autographs for eager alumni and their children.

"I think the team really understood that I can handle difficult situations," he says. "I expressed my leadership well, and that was the main goal."

Not long after the scrimmage, with the semester concluded, he began to prepare for the upcoming season. After his family made their annual trout-fishing expedition to Crowley Lake, near Mammoth Lakes in the eastern Sierras, Sanchez spent the summer shuttling between USC and Orange County. He took one class at Annenberg (in persuasion), directed the team's informal practices and weight-lifting sessions, and trained with coach Johnson. He also worked as a sous chef at Phil Trani's restaurant in Long Beach (he makes a mean fettucine alfredo), took in some musicals (Wicked, A Chorus Line) and practiced his guitar.

Earlier this month at practice, Sanchez dislocated his left knee. He's expected to recover in time for most of the season, which starts Aug. 30 at Virginia. He's smart enough to recognize that Carroll has surrounded him with talent. Once he returns to the lineup, Sanchez won't feel intense pressure to gamble or freelance—which all too often results in interceptions or sacks for negative yardage. "The quarterback's best friends are a good defense and a good running game," he says. "We should be very balanced and very efficient."

USC has also tried to dial back expectations regarding Sanchez. His face isn't on the cover of the team's media guide, and it was senior linebacker Brian Cushing who accompanied Carroll to the PAC-10 media day. And yet, because of his crossover status as starting quarterback and Latino star-on-the-make, the media has descended. He and his family were profiled in ESPN Magazine; Rego, the LA-based Latino lifestyle magazine, did a photo shoot and an interview. And—shades of Joe Kapp—he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated (with Cushing and linebacker Rey Maualuga). This time around, the word "Chicano" wasn't used.

With Trojan fans breaking out homemade ¡Viva Sanchez! T-shirts, some observers have attempted to compare the attention beginning to surround Sanchez with Fernando Mania, the fevered response to Fernando Valenzuela's ascension with the Dodgers in the 1980s. That misses the point. Valenzuela came to Los Angeles as a 19-year-old, left-handed pitcher from Sonora who didn't speak any English. Sanchez was raised in relative comfort in Orange County and groomed to play quarterback since high school. Valenzuela was a unifying figure everyone embraced, in part because his roly-poly girth was so Everyman-ish. It's doubtful UCLA fans will cheer for Sanchez, no matter his lineage or looks.

Still, Sanchez's journey—a multigenerational exodus from Mexico to Chavez Ravine to Orange County to the Los Angeles Coliseum—is unique. "For Mexican-Americans, it's kind of a blessing," Longoria says. "It shows the fallacy that Mexican-American athletes can't be leaders, can't handle the pressure. All they need is the opportunity."

Carroll says that he can't yet measure the impact of Sanchez's Latino heritage on college football. "I know Mark is very proud to represent," he says. "We'll find out in the fall about the following he creates and all of that. It'll be cool to watch what happens."

His high-school coach is confident the USC community will embrace its new leader. "The public will get behind ¡Viva Sanchez! Mark'll do fine with it," Johnson says. "He'll handle it better than any kid his age could ever do."

Sanchez says he's prepared for all the hoopla. Though he's not bilingual (he speaks some Spanish, but "understands it really well"), he plans to "work on it in the future" to forge a deeper connection with the Latino community.

But he knows that once he takes the field, his heritage won't matter. His performance will be measured only against those of his immediate predecessors—Palmer, Leinart and Booty—and the Trojans' six consecutive PAC-10 titles and two national titles under Carroll. "There are a lot of expectations, but that's what this position is all about," he says. "It comes with the territory, and I'm excited about it. Now it's time for me to make my own mark and have my own legacy."

That might include the unveiling of a new mouthpiece. "It'll be a surprise," he says with a sly grin. "We'll figure it out. It's going to be something good, something universally good."

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