Mark Sanchez has grown accustomed to mass-media style interrogation. All it takes is a phone call from his father, Nick.
That's why Monday's phone exchange – "How's school?" "Good." "How's practice?" "Good." "See you later." "Love you, dad." – did not quite fit.
Sanchez hung up, went home and showered. He dried off to find a message on his phone:
"Hey, Mark. It's your dad. One of the guys at the fire station said they have some tickets for Disneyland. We're going Saturday, if you're not doing anything around 12."
Said Sanchez, "That kind of lightened the mood, and then I called him back and we talked about it."
Coaches have told the redshirt sophomore to prepare as if he will start this weekend's 12:30 p.m. game against Arizona. Senior John David Booty threw about 50 passes before Tuesday's practice but was not pleased with his accuracy, he said. He chipped the tip of his right middle finger during the Trojans' loss to Stanford three days before.
Enter Sanchez. The sophomore took over as the No. 1 quarterback Tuesday, as the Trojans practiced in pads for the first time since Saturday. He overthrew several receivers in the opening drills, but he seemed to calm down as workouts wore on.
"It's a tough atmosphere not to get excited about. Everything inside me wants to just jump out of my skin," Sanchez said. "But I think I just have to be cool enough to let the guys know that I can play this game, and I'm ready to lead this team."
Throughout the day, Sanchez referenced the horde of media members who have begun to seek him out, after a mostly-quiet two-and-a-half years on campus.
Of course, his father prepared him for that.
"I remember coming home from high school games, and he would just say, 'So, how did you feel about the game,'" Sanchez recalled before Tuesday's practice. "I was like, 'Oh, it was good.'
"He was like, 'Well, what does that mean? Explain. Tell me what you feel. Say how you're going to say it to so-and-so from the (Orange County) Register or so-and-so from the (Los Angeles) Times.
"I'm prepped for this. I'm ready for it."
Sanchez proved it by ending his statement with a classic sports cliché for someone facing a landmark moment.
"I've just got to have a good Tuesday."
Sanchez's Tuesday was up-and-down. After his shaky start, he connected with senior tight end Fred Davis on the trademark Davis plays – over the middle and down the seams. And he threw a nice ball on a crossing route to Vidal Hazelton.
But coaches are working to tame Sanchez's inner-Brett Favre.
"Mark has always been a real gunslinger at practice," coach Pete Carroll said. "He takes his shots at big plays and will fire the ball around with a lot of confidence."
Sanchez said his new responsibilities would force him to manage the game more and curtail some of the bad habits he may have picked up in high school or on the scout team.
"I think I need to be conservative, and play well and play smart. My personality, I don't think that really matters right now," he said. "It's just … taking the key to this awesome sports car we have here and not crashing."
From the looks of it, coaches may be asking him to keep it off the highway and under 30 miles per hour. During full-team drills, with the starting offense against the starting defense, Sanchez did not get the opportunity to throw much farther than 12-15 yards downfield.
Vincent Joseph intercepted a pass for Davis, after Sanchez forced it into heavy coverage.
"I don't need to try that hard," Sanchez said.
Teammates said Sanchez and Booty are similar – both physically and in the huddle.
"I feel like they're both great quarterbacks," Davis said. "I want to see what Sanchez can do too. But I definitely wish we had Booty, because he's the most experienced."
Said Hazelton, "They both do some of the same things, so it should be fun, it's exciting. It's exciting to play with a new quarterback."
Of course, if Booty's hand heals in time, Sanchez would not play Saturday. But he's prepared for that too.
"It will be like every other week," he said.
Sights and sounds from Tuesday's practice
Carroll said he would not let the quarterback decision drag until Saturday. Both after practice and during his press conference, he noted that it might be better to sit Booty – even if he can play – if he is not fully recovered.
"If we give him a break, maybe he can come back strong, and be ready, and finish the season out," Carroll said. "I don't know that. I'm just kind of guessing. We're trying to wait to see how it responds."
Booty wore a smaller cast on his finger than he had on Monday. He said the finger felt better than expected, but his accuracy "is not quite where I want it to be right now."
He did not participate in practice.
"I have the grip (on the ball)," Booty said. "(The problem) is really when it's coming out, when my finger tip bends coming off the ball. That's the part where it can get away from me."
The swelling is down, as he continues to ice the injury. The training staff will experiment with different ways of taping up the finger to see how it responds, Booty said.
If Booty cannot play, Sanchez's backup would be senior Michael McDonald, with true freshman Aaron Corp – in line to redshirt – as No. 3.
USC is not actively recruiting a quarterback from the class of 2008, after Dayne Crist chose Notre Dame.
During 11-on-11 drills, wide receiver Patrick Turner – who dropped some passes against Stanford – dropped a ball over the middle from Sanchez, on a mock third down and six. The team went right back to Turner on the next play, and he made the catch.
Players and coaches shouted vigorous encouragement, along the lines of, "Nice job, Patrick!" and "There you go, PT!"
Turner caught nine balls for 83 yards against Stanford.
"He had a lot of great catches and made a lot of great plays," Davis said. "Then, the ones we really need, he probably dropped a couple. But it's just some experience, I think.
"Being in that situation, sometimes you get a little bit nervous. He's still young. He still hasn't really played. This is really his first year playing without Dwayne (Jarrett) and Steve (Smith). I think he's going to be great."
Sophomore tailback Allen Bradford got some work in with the first-team offense, carrying for the only two running plays in 11-on-11 drills. Bradford and Joe McKnight are a couple of five-star recruits who have not seen much time in the backfield this season.
Asked what he still needs to show coaches, in order to get more playing time, Bradford said, "I probably need to know the different blitzes … get my blocking down."
Bradford, who was recruited as a defensive player, said he is still growing as a running back.
"Coach Mac (running backs coach Todd McNair) just told me to keep developing every day," Bradford said. "Blocking, setting blocks, run harder, whatever I can do.
"It's just a process."
McKnight sat out most of practice, after his body reacted badly to an energy drink.
David Buehler had a couple of field goals blocked, three days after having an extra-point blocked in the weekend's one-point loss to the Cardinal.
Carroll, anticipating a question about the problems on the line, dodged the issue by praising his kick-blocking unit.
Starting center Matt Spanos did not practice – with a bandage on his stitched-up right pinky – but he will play Saturday.
"If it opens or closes, if it's infected or not – I could care less what it looks like."
Cornerback Shareece Wright (hamstring) appears iffy for Saturday, but he will try to practice tomorrow. Stafon Johnson (foot) says he feels better each day. He looked more comfortable running on the side Tuesday, but he did not practice. He still cannot burst off his toes. Linebacker Thomas Williams (ankle) did not practice, and Carroll said Clay Matthews (shoulder) would start, after playing sparingly against Stanford. Michael Morgan will back him up.
With Wright still out, Vincent Joseph appears to be in line to play in nickel situations, after Mozique McCurtis was the defender on Stanford's game-winning touchdown pass.