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Colbert's Quiet Ascent

He has never been the Trojans' main option, but with 67 catches this season, the senior would break the school's career record for receptions.

August 26, 2003|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

Another season, another shadow.

During his first three years at USC, flanker Keary Colbert caught passes in a workmanlike manner while other Trojan receivers dashed or flashed to the team lead in receptions.

Colbert played two seasons as the second option behind speedy Kareem Kelly. Last year, he eclipsed Kelly, but 6-foot-5 Mike Williams burst onto the national scene with one of the best freshman performances in NCAA history.

As the eighth-ranked Trojans prepare for Saturday's opener at sixth-ranked Auburn, Colbert again is regarded by many as the Trojans' No. 2 receiver. But by season's end, the steady, sure-handed senior from Oxnard could be No. 1 on USC's career reception list.

Colbert, who caught 71 passes last season, needs 67 to break Kelly's school record of 204.

"I'm aware of it, and if it happens, it happens," Colbert said. "But I don't look to it -- it's not the reason I play.

"This is a craft and you just have to work at it."

Work during the off-season, and work ethic before, during and after practices, helped the 6-2, 210-pound Colbert transform from an average college receiver into an NFL prospect.

Neither offensive coordinator Norm Chow nor receivers coach Lane Kiffin said they initially saw the player that Colbert would become when they arrived with Coach Pete Carroll in the spring of 2001 after Colbert's freshman season.

"When we first got here, I didn't think he was going to amount to much," Chow said. "He wasn't flashy, so he never stood out. It took time to show people what he was about."

Said Kiffin: "As coaches, sometimes you judge too fast. And he just totally exceeded what I thought he was at that time."

Colbert was not surprised by the assessment. As a senior in a run-oriented offense at Hueneme High, he caught only 25 passes. He was overwhelmed early in his freshman year at USC while trying to learn former coach Paul Hackett's offense.

"I was able to do enough to just be out there -- I wasn't doing anything spectacular," said Colbert, who started five games and caught 33 passes, the second-best performance by a true freshman in school history behind Kelly's 54 catches in 1999.

Colbert went through another transition when Chow installed his offense for the 2001 season. The Trojans won their opener, then lost five of six before finishing the regular season with four consecutive victories.

Colbert caught 34 passes for 442 yards but was unsatisfied. He spent the spring and summer in the weight room. He worked on his route running and caught hundreds of balls. He also watched hours of tape and compared himself with Jerry Rice.

"It's really hard to constructively criticize yourself," Colbert said. "A lot of guys don't want to do that, but that's what you have to do. If you don't, and you just think you're great and there's no room for improvement, you're not going to get better."

Colbert started relatively slowly last season in a revamped offense that eventually enabled Carson Palmer to win the Heisman Trophy and become the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Colbert caught two passes in the opener against Auburn and had four receptions against Colorado before making a career-best 11 catches for 125 yards against Kansas State.

Colbert went on to record the fourth-best single-season reception total in USC history as the Trojans won the Orange Bowl and finished 11-2. Colbert, who had a game-best six catches for 81 yards in the Orange Bowl victory over Iowa, celebrated with his teammates in Miami. Then he went back to work during the spring and summer.

"I'm still not where I want to be, but the gap is getting a little smaller," he said.

This season, Colbert is the elder in a receiving corps that includes Williams and freshman Steve Smith, who has said throughout training camp that he patterns himself after Colbert. Williams caught 81 passes last season. Smith is the all-time receiving leader in California high school history.

"With Keary, we can do so many different things," Williams said. "If teams say, 'Oh, we've got to stop Mike Williams,' they don't understand. There's a guy who runs a 4.3 [40-yard dash] on the other side of the field."

Before training camp began, Colbert said the transition from Palmer to a new quarterback would not adversely affect the Trojans. He has been encouraged by the play of redshirt sophomore Matt Leinart, who will start against Auburn.

"I don't think it will be that much different," Colbert said.

Last week, teammates elected Colbert and linebacker Melvin Simmons captains. Colbert, the quieter of the two, said he would draw on what he picked up from watching Palmer and All-American safety Troy Polamalu last season.

"Even though they didn't play the same position as me, I learned from them," Colbert said. "You could see Troy go hard on each play. You could see Carson's demeanor. Even when the ball didn't bounce right, he didn't put his head down.

"It's all about setting an example and working hard. If you do that, you can't help but get better."



Receiving Praise

Keary Colbert (6-2, 210 pounds) was born on May 21, 1982. Colbert's 138 catches put him sixth on USC's career reception chart (he's within range of Kareem Kelly's school record of 204). He has caught a pass in 23 consecutive games. His USC career statistics:

*--* Season Rec Yards Yds/Rec TD 2000 33 480 14.5 3 2001 34 442 13.0 2 2002 71 1,029 14.5 5 Career 138 1,951 14.1 10


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