Watching Matt Cassel’s rise from the depths of obscurity is an amazing story in itself. But for one particular observer, there’s a personal connection and offering of hope. That person is USC quarterback Mitch Mustain, who oddly enough finds himself walking a similar path, though the upcoming spring and summer months may offer a shortcut.
Cassel never started a game as a Trojan, and neither has Mustain. Cassel sat behind two Heisman Trophy winners and future NFL first round draft picks. Mustain spent his first eligible year at USC sitting behind Mark Sanchez, a one year starter with first round aspirations. As a junior, Cassel approached a window of opportunity and failed to crawl through. Now in his junior campaign, Mitch Mustain walks towards that same window, hoping to not meet the same fate.
Carson Palmer’s 2003 departure left an open competition for quarterbacks remaining. The early favorite was clearly Matt Cassel, having secured the No. 2 role a year prior. He competed and eventually lost the spring battle to the younger Matt Leinart, which resulted in his spending the final two years of eligibility as a substitute.
Mitch Mustain enters spring practice of 2009, and it’s now or never for one of the most decorated high school quarterbacks of the 2006 recruiting class. Like Cassel in 2003, losing this year’s battle is to lose all hope of ever starting as a Trojan. Only twice since 1998 has USC made a quarterback switch to remove a starter, and never under Pete Carroll’s watch. The holder of the reins has guided the chariot until his collegiate work was done. Carson Palmer replaced Mike Van Raaphorst in the 9th game of the ’98 season, to become only the second true freshman quarterback ever to start a game for USC. A broken collar bone benched Palmer in ’99. Outside of the switch in his freshman year, and the injury as a sophomore, the quarterback to win the initial competition has always maintained the starting role.
Mustain flip-flopped as the No. 2 and 3 through the course of last season, never threatening Mark Sanchez for the first team spot. With Sanchez gone, he now battles the more versatile sophomore Aaron Corp and the highly touted true freshman Matt Barkley. It may be one last gasp, a final shot to prove his worth. Failure places him on the alternate route, which is shadowed, much longer, and contains the footprints of Matt Cassel.