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Sanchez Sets His Sights on Starting Role


2009 Draft Jets First Round Pick - Mark Sanchez

We already know that Kellen Clemens has plenty of experience with quarterback competitions, but Mark Sanchez is no novice to the exercise either. 

Last spring, Los Angeles was abuzz about the USC QB competition between Sanchez and Mitch Mustain. And now little more than a year later, Sanchez flashes a wide grin and laughs when asked about how so much has changed and yet remains the same in little more than a calendar year.

"People didn't even think I was going to start back then last year at SC and now it's like is he going to start for the Jets or not? That's a wild 365 days, but I lived them up, I had a blast with them and I'm moving on," he told me last week as we stood on the sideline at Hofstra University and watched the Empire Challenge. "I'm excited about this new venture and my new home out here. It's been a blast and a whirlwind tour, to say the least."

Sanchez, of course, outdistanced himself from Mustain and the other Trojan passers in 2008. He threw for 3,207 yards and 34 TDs while leading Southern Cal to a 12-1 record. They finished No. 2 in the coaches poll after manhandling Penn State in the Rose Bowl, a game in which Sanchez accounted for 5 TDs (4 pass and 1 run) while completing 28 of 35 passes for 413 yards.

It Was Going To Happen

But you naturally wonder what was going through Sanchez's mind before that memorable campaign. After backing up John David Booty for a couple of seasons, Sanchez didn't waste his time taking over in the spring and USC head coach Pete Carroll tabbed him as the team's starter before the annual Trojan Huddle Scrimmage.

"I felt like it was going to happen. You just have to have this quiet confidence and this calm about you that something good is always going to happen no matter what — whether you just threw a touchdown, you just threw an interception, you're in quarterback battle, or the job is all yours," Sanchez said. "Something good is about to happen and that's the way I feel, that's the way I prepare, and that's the way I'll keep on thinking."

Sanchez, a third-generation Mexican American, became an instant fan favorite. During last year's spring game, vendors sold "Viva Sanchez" T-shirts. And we've seen firsthand the hoopla that followed Sanchez after his GQ beach shoot went to the bookstores in the spring. There was also tabloid speculation that he was dating model Hilary Rhoda, but he is unfazed by all the non-football attention.

"That kind of comes with the territory and at the same time it doesn't seem like that much attention to me because I don't really look at it. Everybody formulates their own perception and that's the way it's going to be," he says. "I can just be me and go about making the right decisions as I see them. 

"I've been having a great time with things and staying focused. I took a little heat for the GQ photo shoot but obviously it hasn't hindered my performance, so there's no argument there. It was fun for me and a great experience, but all that stuff is behind me and I'm ready to focus on football."

Finish Strong

The Jets have been pleased with Sanchez's approach, but in no way surprised. Blessed with the support of a strong, loving family, he exudes confidence and a refreshing steadiness for a 22-year-old. He experienced the normal ups and downs of a rookie quarterback during his first pro spring, remaining positive throughout and closing with a wonderful flurry on a final drive which culminated on an end zone strike to WR Wallace Wright.

"That two-minute drive we had at the end was great. It's exactly the way you want to finish a camp, finish strong and let them know things are coming along.   I'm feeling more and more comfortable with the offense every day," he said.

The Jets' 2009 rookie class will be in town until Friday and then there will be a three-week break for the youngsters. Sanchez will return to his native Southern Californian home for the July 4th holiday before taking a little vacation to really unwind, heeding the advice of Bob Johnson, the QB guru who coached Sanchez at Mission Viejo High School.

"He had two kids who played in the NFL for a while [Rob Johnson notably for the Bills] and the first thing they said was, 'Hey, look, you've been going since the beginning of last season with your college team and you really didn't get a break going through this whole draft process. Take a week, put down the playbook, put down the football and get the heck out of here.' So that's what I plan on doing," Sanchez said.

Going For It

But he'll be eager to get up to Cortland, N.Y., in late July. As the youngest of three brothers, it is plain to see that he loves being around the guys when viewed on the field or in the locker room. He is upbeat, constantly encouraging teammates and he's also accepting of the ribbing he gets from veterans. The No. 5 overall selection in the draft, who reportedly received a guaranteed $28 million to sign, gets a ton of perks and he intends on spreading some of that wealth along the way.

"When they see you sharing some of that stuff that you're experiencing with them, they know it's real and it's genuine and that's the way I am," he says. "I feel blessed to do all this, but at the same time I'm their teammate and this is what I want to be. I want to share with all these guys and have a blast with them. It's been great thus far and I think they know who I am regardless of the attention."

Jets Nation will be focused on Sanchez's progress in the coming months. And just like last year, he'll have to earn the right to start. The whirlwind tour is over but there is another job to win.  

"For me, I feel like I'm going to be on the field and that's what you always want to do. You don't grow up dreaming of being a backup, so I'm going to go for it," he said. "I know Kellen's going to do the same thing, and it's going to be a great competition and I'm excited to compete with him."

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