LOS ANGELES - Matt Cassel couldn't even get on the field while at USC, backing up two Heisman Trophy winners, and now he's the starting quarterback for the New England Patriots.
Running back LenDale White also was a backup to a Heisman winner for the Trojans. White had 1,110 yards rushing for the Tennessee Titans last season and has scored 15 TDs this year.
Vidal Hazelton, a prized wide receiver recruit who spurned the Nittany Lions in favor of USC, recently left the program and will transfer because he wasn't getting much playing time.
Penn State's opponent in the Rose Bowl is loaded. Plain and simple. The Trojans have talent everywhere, with stud recruits who would start at almost any school filling up the depth chart at numerous positions.
The toughest part for USC's coaches is finding enough playing time for everyone.
''It's a challenge because you want to give these kids all the opportunities to make their plays and to play well and do all the things they want to do,'' Trojan offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. ''But at the end of the day, we're just trying to win the game.''
Hazelton, a junior, is proof it's not easy going from star recruit to sitting on the bench at USC. He was second on the team with 50 catches a year ago but filtered out of the program after an ankle injury and drop on the depth chart limited him to six catches this year.
Hazelton reportedly has narrowed his transfer possibilities down to Rutgers and Missouri. Another Trojan, redshirt freshman running back Broderick Green, also recently announced he's transferring after gaining 168 yards on 32 carries this season.
''The way our roster is set up, this isn't for everybody,'' Sarkisian said. ''This is a unique situation where it takes a really competitive kid who wants to come in and battle with the best and compete with the best and feel comfortable in this environment.''
USC's players go up against a slew of future NFL guys every day in practice, and they have little margin for error to earn playing time. The Trojans had four players taken in the first round of the NFL draft in 2008 and 10 selected overall.
''It's put up or shut up,'' receiver Patrick Turner said. ''You're either going to play or you're not going to play. There's competition every day. You know you've just got to battle every day, day in and day out, and that's what it's based on. And that brings the best out of you.''
A great example this season is the Trojans' backfield. They have a tailback by committee, rotating Joe McKnight, Stafon Johnson and C.J. Gable. McKnight leads the team with 646 yards rushing, while Johnson (642) and Gable (604) aren't far behind.
''You know for sure that when you go there, you have to compete and you're going to get the best taken out of you,'' Johnson said. ''You have to push forward, and it's going to make you better.''
One thing USC does not do is mislead recruits about having to be patient and wait for their opportunity to play.
''No, we don't ever tell them to be patient,'' Sarkisian said. ''We tell them to just beat the door down and just get on the field. Find a way to get on the field. I don't want these kids waiting. We'll find a way to get them the ball.''
USC has a rich tradition, but it wasn't long ago the Trojans were having just as much trouble as everybody else attracting talented players. They finished 5-7 in 2000, the year before head coach Pete Carroll came aboard, and were just 6-6 in Carroll's first season.
Everything changed in 2002, with the help of current Pittsburgh Steelers star Troy Polamalu.
Sarkisian, who will coach in the Rose Bowl despite already being named Washington's new head coach, singled out Polamalu and Heisman-winning quarterback Carson Palmer as two players who ''set the tone for what this place was going to become.''
''Nobody worked harder, nobody prepared more, nobody did a better job in the weight room, nobody studied film more, and it showed up,'' Sarkisian said. ''What they were able to do in their two years ... they set the stage for kids seeing what it can be.
''As that moved forward, all of sudden Matt Leinart showed up, Reggie Bush showed up, LenDale White. And these kids started to show up [thinking], 'If I go there, I can be great.'''
USC went 11-2 in 2002 with the help of senior leadership by Polamalu and Palmer. The turning point, Sarkisian said, occurred in week five that year after an 18-17 loss at Washington State that dropped the Trojans to 3-2.
''When we lost that ballgame, I think the seniors - Carson, Troy - said we're not losing these ballgames anymore like this,'' Sarkisian said. ''That's what has happened, and we're not doing that anymore. ... It just took off from there.''
Polamalu gave all the credit to Carroll, who came to USC from the NFL.
''Coach Carroll is the one who changed everything at USC,'' Polamalu said Sunday after the Steelers' regular-season finale against Cleveland. ''We were a selfish group with a lot of talent there. He brought everyone together and made it fun.
''Sometimes with professional coaches, they take that type of approach, but Coach Carroll takes a college approach and makes it fun. He talks and listens to the players. A lot of the assistant coaches are the same way - Coach [Norm] Chow, Sarkisian, my uncle [Kennedy Pola of the Jacksonville Jaguars] - they're perfect rah, rah guys and make the atmosphere really fun.''
The Trojans won the national title in 2003 and '04 and lost to Texas in the '05 championship game. Along the way, Leinart won the Heisman in 2004 and running back Reggie Bush the following year.
USC has plenty going for it, from tradition and great facilities to the beautiful weather in Southern California, but those things didn't help much when the program was struggling in the late 1990s.
The biggest change was the most obvious.
''You've got to win,'' Sarkisian said. ''As much as we all say recruiting and going into homes and doing all the things that you have to do, the bottom line is you have to win football games.
''Kids want to win. They want to win championships, they want to go to BCS bowl games, they want to sit in press conferences, they want to be on ESPN. That's the stuff they live for.''
Asked about the Rose Bowl matchup, Polamalu predicted ''the best defense will win this game.''
''They're both good defenses,'' Polamalu said. ''USC's offense is a little underrated, but I think whoever shows up on defense will win the game.''
Note: Mirror Sports Editor Buck Frank contributed to this story.
Cory Giger is at 949-7031 and firstname.lastname@example.org.