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USC freshman Booty will get chance to make an impression in practice

September 16, 2003|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

John David Booty's class schedule at USC this semester includes courses in anthropology, writing, health and computers.

Midterms are still about a month away, but the heralded freshman quarterback from Shreveport, La., begins a major test today, a practical exam of sorts on the practice field.

With the fourth-ranked Trojans not scheduled to play again until the Sept. 27 Pacific 10 Conference opener at California, Coach Pete Carroll said Booty will work with the first-team offense and take the majority of snaps during this week's workouts.

"This is a big week for him," Carroll said. "We'll find out how far he can take it and what he looks like."

Before the season, some in the Trojan program thought this would be the week that Booty would challenge for a starting role. But redshirt sophomore Matt Leinart quashed that scenario with mostly solid play during victories over Auburn and Brigham Young, and a near mistake-free performance last Saturday against Hawaii that kept the unbeaten Trojans on track for a possible run at the national championship.

Leinart has a 140.0 efficiency rating after completing 51 of 85 passes for 647 yards and six touchdowns with three interceptions. Last year, Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer had a 120.7 efficiency rating after three games, completing 63 of 109 passes for 732 yards and three touchdowns with two passes intercepted.

Leinart took every snap in the first two games this season, but redshirt junior Matt Cassel and junior transfer Brandon Hance played in the second half of the 61-32 victory over Hawaii at the Coliseum. Meanwhile, Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow kept Booty tethered to the sideline.

"I really thought I might get in," Booty said. "I was ready and I felt that would have been a good time to be in there for the first time because we were so far ahead and we were at home.

"I don't know what they're thinking, but I trust in them to make the right decisions. That's one of the reasons I came here. I have to put my faith in them."

Carroll and Chow said there are no definitive plans to redshirt Booty, who was regarded as the top high school quarterback in the Class of 2004 before deciding to forgo his senior season at Evangel Christian Academy and enroll at USC a year ahead of schedule.

Booty, 6 feet 3 and 200 pounds, displayed a strong arm and impressive accuracy during the first few days of training camp, which featured split practices for newcomers and veterans. However, back problems and shin splints slowed his progress and forced him to sit out several days of full-squad workouts.

After undergoing a bone scan on his back and taking an epidural injection, Booty returned to practice and has been playing catch-up while trying to learn Chow's system. To aid the progression, Carroll has for several weeks made the final team drill of each practice a showcase for Booty.

But this week will be the first time that Booty will work extensively with the first-team offensive line and receivers.

"Sometimes things break down [working with reserves] and there are problems," Carroll said. "You'd like to give him a chance to work with a group that is going to be a little cleaner and see what he looks like."

Carroll employed the same tactic during a bye week last season after the opener against Auburn. Freshman offensive lineman Winston Justice began working with the first unit and was in the starting lineup at right tackle for the second game at Colorado.

Given Leinart's performance, Booty's goal this week is to move up the depth chart.

"Hopefully, I can get a chance to get into a rhythm," he said. "It won't just be two reps here or five reps there, more like 15 or 20 in a row. There's a big difference."

Leinart can attest to that.

For the last two seasons, Leinart and Cassel languished during game weeks while Palmer got the majority of work. During the bye week last season, however, Leinart and Cassel split repetitions while battling to establish themselves as Palmer's backup.

Leinart said he is not threatened by the emphasis on Booty.

"That's what the bye week is all about, giving other guys more reps to see what they can do," Leinart said. "I think it's good. Booty is a great player and it's going to be good for him to get all those reps."

Carroll said that Cassel and Hance also would take more snaps. And while Cassel said he is prepared, he is well aware that developing Booty is a priority.

"Nothing is going to shock me anymore," he said. "I've been here for four years and you have to deal with the dice that you roll and you can't really worry about anything else.... There's a lot that goes into who plays and who doesn't."

Carroll said Booty is only one of several freshmen who can move up the depth chart this week. Freshman running back Whitney Lewis, defensive lineman Chris Barrett and several offensive lineman also are expected to receive extended looks.

For now, Leinart's performance has made moot the situation that neither Carroll nor Chow wanted to address during training camp. Asked before the Hawaii game if he would consider making an improved Booty the starter if Leinart faltered -- but the Trojans continued to win -- Chow was noncommittal.

"It depends on how Matt's playing," Chow said. "Do you ruin the chemistry of a team? I don't know. I really don't. We're just going to have to wait and see."

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