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Following The Leader

By Preparing Himself for Every Game Possibility, Chris Claiborne Sets an Example for His Trojan Teammates


The play begins to unfold, a handoff to the tailback, and Chris Claiborne's next move is swift, decisive, and so well-practiced it's almost second nature.

He pulls his notebook and a nub of a pencil out of his backpack--without ever taking his eyes off the television screen.

Claiborne is USC's highly talented middle linebacker, quite possibly the nation's most impressive one in the eyes of no less an expert on speed and hard hits than Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden.

But what is setting Claiborne apart this season is his studious devotion to analyzing videotape after videotape, soaking up everything linebacker coach Shawn Slocum can tell him about the position he plays.

"I think he's wise beyond his years," Coach Paul Hackett said. "He's just searching and thirsting, saying 'What else? What else?' "

That was the way Claiborne felt only 20 minutes or so after the Trojans' devastating collapse against Cal on Saturday.

Berating himself for not making some big play to turn the game, and almost irrationally claiming blame for a loss that plenty of others should shoulder, Claiborne saw only one solution.

"I'm definitely going to go look at film to see what I could have done for us to win," he said.

Receiver R. Jay Soward may be the Trojans' most spectacular player, but Claiborne is the best.

He wears the No. 55 Junior Seau wore at USC, and he will be the Trojans' next All-American linebacker. There is a chance--particularly if Claiborne somehow passes on becoming a probable top 10 NFL pick and returns for his senior year--that he could become the first Butkus Award winner in USC history.

Already, there are plays that are going down in Claiborne lore.

There was his fourth-and-one stop of Florida State's Travis Minor, deep in USC territory, as Minor tried to sweep wide for the first down.

There was the 40-yard interception return against Oregon State that reminded you that this punishing, 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker used to be a tailback who once had a 239-yard game and rushed for 2,199 yards his senior season at Riverside J.W. North High.

Then there was what might be described as the game-winning hit on Arizona State quarterback Ryan Kealy.

Claiborne knocked Kealy out of the game with a concussion on the first series of what proved to be a Trojan victory.

"He left himself open. I just hit him," Claiborne said. "You're happy you made the play. Then you want to see that the guy's going to be OK. But to have him out of the game, that's an edge for us."

In the stands, even Claiborne's mother flinched.

"I know he did his job," Millie Perkins said. "But I was up there, just praying the other young man wasn't seriously hurt. Being a mother, I felt for Ryan's mother."

Perkins, who separated from Chris' father, a Marine gunnery sergeant in Japan, when her boy was 1, gets much of the credit for the person Claiborne has become--a stud linebacker who doesn't swagger, strut and yammer with self-importance.

Disciplined, modest, a soft-spoken leader, he carries himself much the same way as, say, U.S. Naval Academy players do.

"It's obvious he's a guy with a lot of confidence," Slocum said. "Chris doesn't do a lot of talking, and he never brags, because he has a lot of confidence in himself."

"My mom, I think, is a big influence," Claiborne said. "People don't see that as much because my dad's a Marine, and it just kind of sounds right. But she's done a lot. She instills values in me, and people at church, they look out for each other's kids."

Claiborne's father left his mark, too. He put his son through a personalized boot camp, running the beaches of Okinawa, before Claiborne's freshman year. He's another who taught Chris to speak softly but pack a big hit.

"I'm not a yell guy before games. I don't really talk in the locker room," Claiborne said. "I think the worst weapon is silence. My dad tells me, 'People that talk a lot? They're scared of you.' "

That list of people is growing this season, and other teams focus on trying to hold off Claiborne as they make their game plans for USC. For Arizona State, the tactic was to have standout center Grey Ruegamer try to block, hold and generally antagonize Claiborne all afternoon.

"They had a guy on his ankles and a guy up high," said strongside linebacker Mark Cusano, who with weakside linebacker David Gibson gives USC a potent trio. "Chris fought through the blockers and still made the plays. He's definitely something special."

If other teams are studying Claiborne, he is also studying them, taking the tapes Slocum prepares and returning full of questions.

"His work ethic off the field, his fascination with football, bending Coach Slocum's ear, it all trickles down to the rest of the defensive players," Hackett said.

To sit in on a film session with Slocum and Claiborne is to be immersed in their shorthand, a quick back-and-forth exchange as Claiborne practices picking up cues from the offensive formations.

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