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No. 1 USC VS. VIRGINIA TECH

Arm and Hammer

Leinart deflects talk of winning Heisman as he tries to nail down another national title.

August 25, 2004|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

As Matt Leinart prepared for last year's season opener, USC football observers questioned whether he could live up to the standard set by Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer.

This week, the question for the junior quarterback from Santa Ana is: Can he live up to the even higher standard he established during his breakout season a year ago?

Leinart, who had never thrown a pass in a college game, eclipsed Palmer's totals in several categories and led the Trojans to a 12-1 record and a share of their first national title since 1978. He finished sixth in Heisman balloting.

He is among the top candidates for the award this season, leading a team ranked first in the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today preseason coaches' polls. The Trojans open their season Saturday against Virginia Tech in the Black Coaches Assn. Football Classic at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.

"It's tough, you know, because a lot of people are going to think, 'How can you have a better season individually?' " said Leinart, who passed for 3,556 yards with 38 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2003.

"I'm not going to listen to what anyone says or thinks. My main goal is to go out there and win again. I'm just going to go out and play the way I know how to play and, hopefully, that will be good enough."

Leinart, 21, spent the off-season resting a sore left elbow and trying to meet national media demands prompted by his 2003 performance.

Tendinitis, which set in near the end of spring practice, is making the elbow sore in his throwing arm. Leinart quit throwing during the summer, but the condition has lingered.

Offensive coordinator Norm Chow said he was not overly concerned -- "He knows the offense so well, he'll be fine" -- but Chow and Coach Pete Carroll limited Leinart's repetitions during training camp.

"It's not something I'm really worried about," said Leinart, who completed 19 of 23 passes for 238 yards and four touchdowns in a scrimmage last week. "Obviously, it's frustrating that I can't maybe throw as hard as I used to, but I have to use my mind a little better."

Last week, Leinart sought relief from the national media crush during an emotional meeting with Chow.

Unlike Palmer, who began his final college season with relatively little fanfare, Leinart has been in demand almost from the moment he caught a spectacular touchdown pass from receiver Mike Williams in the Rose Bowl against Michigan. He appeared on the covers of more than a dozen preseason football publications and by the middle of training camp the attention was a burden.

"It just got to the point where I just was like, 'I have to focus on football,' " he said. "I realize I'm going to have to do a lot of stuff -- it's just the nature of the position I'm in. But I was kind of getting overwhelmed. And I don't want to be the only guy on this team getting singled out."

Other USC players, however, said they would take their cues from Leinart.

"Last year, he [called] the play and went on with his business," sophomore offensive lineman Fred Matua said. "This year, he's more of a leader. We look for him in that role. Everyone respects him."

Last week, teammates chose Leinart the offensive captain. Senior lineman Shaun Cody and senior linebacker Matt Grootegoed are defensive co-captains.

Said Leinart, "I was just telling Cody the other day, 'It's strange. We came in here together and it just seems like yesterday. And now we're being looked up to -- the team's eyes are on us.' "

Leinart said he was not concerned about the Trojans' inexperienced receiving corps and offensive line, both of which will directly affect his performance and well-being.

Last season, Leinart relied on flanker Keary Colbert and receiver Mike Williams, who combined for 164 receptions and 25 touchdowns. Colbert is now with the Carolina Panthers and Williams' status as a college player remains uncertain because of his attempt last February to leave for the NFL.

"Both of those guys are great football players but at the same time, we have a lot of good talent, a lot of big freshman receivers who can play and a lot of older upperclassmen who can play," Leinart said.

Against Virginia Tech, Leinart will operate behind a line that could feature three players making their first starts for the Trojans. Redshirt freshman tackle Sam Baker will be playing in his first game.

"Now that the group is set, it's just a matter of coming together and becoming a tight, cohesive unit," Leinart said. "The good thing is, in practice they go against a defense better than any we will see. That's why I'm not worried. I have total confidence in all those guys."

Leinart already is regarded as a top pro prospect and his stock is certain to rise if he comes close to duplicating last season's performance.

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