LOS ANGELES - Mark Sanchez didn't set out to be a spokesman for Mexican Americans.

But Sanchez's heritage and prominent standing as Southern Cal's quarterback naturally propelled the large Hispanic community here to latch onto the third-generation Mexican American.

Sanchez knew as much, and because of that pride, he had the Trojans' team dentist create a mouthpiece with a Mexican flag across the front. He wore it last year during a three-game stint as the starter but was heavily criticized on Internet message boards and in newspaper columns.

"It was surprising," Sanchez said yesterday. "It taught me a lot about the spotlight that I'm in and how many people you can reach."

It further endeared him to his Mexican followers, but he never wore the mouthpiece again and has since downplayed political views. Sanchez, after all, grew up in middle-class Orange County, cannot speak Spanish fluently, and is as much the all-American quarterback as his USC predecessors were.

"It's not like I'm Mexican to a fanatic standpoint like some kind of radical, political stance," the 22-year-old said. "It's a part of my upbringing and I'm proud of it. But it's not like I have anything against this country. I love it."

Nevertheless, he has become a beacon for football-loving Hispanic Americans. At USC's open practice, as the Trojans prepared for Penn State and Thursday's Rose Bowl, a large number of Mexican fans came just to see Sanchez.

Armando Barragan and his wife, Paula, regularly attend practice and have developed a rapport with the outgoing redshirt junior. According to Armando, 55, Sanchez often will walk the sideline and engage in conversation with supporters.

"It's great to see someone from your background succeed," Barragan said. "We met his parents at a tailgate party, and he just happened to see us here and came over and called [Paula] 'Mrs. Faithful.' "

Paula, 50, holds up her cane, inscribed with Sanchez's signature as well as the moniker he gave her.

"He's very proud of his origins," Paula Barragan said. "He's very caring - takes the time to stop and talk to everybody and thanks them for coming."

There have been other big-name quarterbacks with Mexican heritage - Jeff Garcia, Tony Romo and Jim Plunkett among them - but none has been so adopted by the community in which he plays.

"My Hispanic background - if that leads them to be Trojans fans, I'm happy about that," Sanchez said. "But obviously I'm proud to be an American, where I can celebrate my heritage."

Sanchez, though, had a Norman Rockwellesque childhood. His father, Nick, is a fire captain and moved the family to the predominantly white Orange County when Mark was 6. Mark - like his two older brothers, Nick Jr. and Brandon - was tutored to play under center by Nick Sr., a former junior-college quarterback.

Nick Jr., now a lawyer, played at Yale. Brandon, a mortgage broker, was an offensive lineman at Depauw.

Mark was destined to suit up for hometown USC. As a youngster, he was a ball boy for future Trojans quarterback Carson Palmer when he was a high school star in Orange County. At Mission Viejo High, he played for Bob Johnson, the father of former USC and Buffalo Bills quarterback Rob Johnson.

Still, there were obstacles. Sanchez was redshirted his first year. Later that school year, he was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault. He eventually was cleared but temporarily was suspended from the team.

"It was one of those things - on the field, people will cheap-shot you, and in a social light, someone might toss their drink at you and see how you respond," Sanchez said later. "You learn, you grow, you mature."

He has since avoided trouble, and on the field won the starting job outright before this season. In leading USC to an 11-1 record, Sanchez threw for 2,794 yards and 30 touchdowns with just 11 interceptions. He plans to return for his final year, a prospect embraced by the Trojans and Hispanic communities, and, of course, coach Pete Carroll.

"I think everybody's latched onto him because he's a terrific kid and is a great performer," Carroll said. "He does have a real flair in dealing with people. He has an energy about him."