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Perry Putting Safety First : USC: Last year's backup quarterback has new outlook as a starting defensive back.

August 20, 1993|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you take a quarterback with undisputed athletic talent and turn him into a defensive back, which he has never been, can he be ready to play in less than a year?

Quarterback-turned-safety Reggie Perry and USC defensive coordinator Don Lindsey will soon find out. Perry will start at strong safety when USC opens against North Carolina Aug. 29 at Anaheim Stadium.

A senior who hasn't started at any position since the 1991 game against UCLA, Perry has made several spectacular plays during the Trojans' preseason camp at UC Irvine. But practices aren't games, as Lindsey is quick to point out.

"I'm a little nervous about Reggie," Lindsey said Thursday. "He's not ready yet.

"He's got the athletic tools, yeah, but he's never played the position. I'm concerned. He won't be ready for the first game, and he may not be ready for the sixth or seventh games.

"I'm confident he's going to be very effective for us back there, but he needs game experience to get there."

Perry's USC football career has gone from highly promising to highly disappointing. Five years ago, he lit up USC practices as a redshirt freshman quarterback. But he never fully transferred that practice magic to games.

In 1991, when he started 10 of 11 games at quarterback, he threw only three touchdown passes--and 12 interceptions.

Then came the hate mail.

"I started getting some really strange mail, both at my mom's house in Dennison, Tex., and my apartment at SC," he said.

"None of it was racial (Perry is black), or anything, it was just mean stuff. One envelope had a newspaper picture of me getting sacked. Someone had taken a high-lighter pen and written my stats from some game--they weren't very good--on the picture.

"Then there was a written comment: 'Why are you even here?' "

Much of the abuse was oral, and Perry said he heard it all.

"When you run in and out of the Coliseum tunnel, fans there say a lot of tough stuff sometimes," he said.

"And the amazing thing is that after the second game I started that year, when we beat Penn State, some guy ran up to me and told me I was the best quarterback ever to come to USC."

Perry smiled ruefully.

"People can sure change their minds about you in a hurry," he said.

In 1992, Perry became Rob Johnson's backup at quarterback. In 1990, he had played behind Todd Marinovich. Through it all, only one thing mattered to him.

"When people were criticizing me, all that really mattered to me was that my teammates knew I was doing the best I could, and I think they did," he said.

Then came the coaching change, and perhaps a final ray of hope.

"I had asked Coach (Larry) Smith if I could switch to defense before last season, but he said he needed me at backup quarterback," Perry said.

"So when Coach (John) Robinson was hired, he knew I wanted to change. We all had appointments to meet with him and when I had mine, he was waiting for me at the door to his office.

"He said, 'Do you want to move?' When I said I did, he said, 'Good, let's talk about it.' "

Robinson has said that he doesn't want Perry on the sideline.

"We have to get him in the games," Robinson said. "He's the leader of this team. If this team has a great year, Reggie will have a lot to do with that."

To prepare to play strong safety, Perry said he learned quickly that defensive backs are better conditioned than quarterbacks.

"You run on almost every play, so you have to be in great shape," he said.

"A quarterback takes maybe five, six steps on most plays. That's about it. A safety has to run 40 yards on pass coverage, then maybe has to do it again on the next play.

"It's hard to learn, never having been there before. I'm so far behind. I have to learn to read keys better, pick up pre-snap reads and get my shoulders turned. And I need to work on learning where my help is coming from."

Said Lindsey: "Reggie needs an awareness of what he has to do in all situations. It's one thing to have a lot of talent, but another to play a brand-new position at a high level of competition."

One area where Perry needs little help is the classroom. He already has one degree, in marketing, and is working on another in industrial sociology.

Perry, 6 feet 3 and 205 pounds, got a scare in spring practice last April. During physical exams his freshman year, he was found to have Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a rare heart abnormality. It's not as serious a condition as cardiomyopathy, which caused the death of Loyola Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers.

In spring practice one day, he experienced rapid heartbeat.

"I went into the hospital and . . . they burned off a fibrous part of my heart muscle that was causing the arrhythmia," he said. "I spent that night in the hospital, left the next day and was back at practice that afternoon."

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