New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez spoke to the Trojans and observed practice Thursday in his return to the USC campus. He arrived around 5:45 a.m., Trojans coach Lane Kiffin said, and sat in for an hour and a half's worth of meetings, then taking a few minutes to speak to the team in the auditorium in Heritage Hall before heading out to Howard Jones Field, doing some throwing and watching the team portion of practice from the sidelines.
“I don’t know if I was here that early when I was in school, but it was fun,” Sanchez said after practice. “It was great to see Coach Kiffin and [quarterback Matt] Barkley. The guys looked great.”
Sanchez, 24, was drafted fifth overall by the Jets in 2009 after four seasons at USC, during which he started only 16 games and threw 41 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. After leading USC to a dominant Rose Bowl win over Penn State and raising his stock, he declared early for the NFL Draft -- he had redshirted his first year but earned his degree before leaving -- in a memorable January 2009 press conference alongside former USC coach Pete Carroll.
In two seasons with the Jets, Sanchez has led the team to the AFC Championship Game on each occasion and has generally earned praise from the media, opponents and general public for his poised play as a young signal-caller in high-stakes situation.
"Mark really did a great job of what we try to get our guys to do all the time – maximize your experience here with all the people you can meet and all the connections you can make," Kiffin said. "Even though he left early, Mark left with his degree and he talked about that, comparable to other kids with the relief of having that done as opposed to having to find a way to get back in the summers, which is hard once you’re playing at that level."
Sanchez joked that the current Trojans fell asleep about halfway through his speech but said he felt they gained a little something from what he had to say. He stressed the fact that he left early for the NFL only because he was able to get his degree and didn't have to come back later on in the summer or after his NFL career ends.
"One of the most important things was the school side: just get to class, that’s half the battle," Sanchez said when asked about what he told the team. "Just get there and be attentive while you’re here, don’t have to come back. We all want to play in the NFL. Everyone does that sits in that auditorium – everyone.
"I’m so fortunate to be able to do it, but my most important thing when I declared was I’ve been here for four years, I’ve finished my degree and that was first on my list. Now I have an opportunity to play football and continue my career."
Sanchez, who came to campus with longtime friend and Tennessee Titans receiver Damian Williams, stood near Barkley for a good portion of the practice and shouted out tips and pointers at various points in the session. Barkley and quarterbacks coach Clay Helton use wristbands as a way of getting play-calls to him at the line, but Sanchez told Barkley how he and former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian via hand signals.
“Nothing very philosophical, but just little things about plays and stuff. Good little tips and reminders," Barkley said. "It was good to hear from a guy that’s in the NFL and what he has to say. It’s a good perspective and he’s a vibrant guy."
About the early-morning practices -- the Trojans take the field at 7:25 a.m. twice a week during spring and will continue to during the fall -- Sanchez said he wasn't sure if he could work with that regularly.
"I don’t know," he said. "That’s early. I like to get a little lunch, maybe get a nap and then get to practice.
"But these guys did a great job with it, just mixing things up, and it looks like guys are responding pretty well."