In an era of 85-scholarship limits and dreams of becoming an NFL bonus baby, college football teams aren't supposed to be able to stack the quarterback position four deep with the kind of talent USC could field next fall.
The usual thinking is that quarterbacks who were All-Americans in high school aren't willing to wait two or three years to start while the clock is ticking on a potential NFL career.
Matt Leinart's decision to return for his senior year creates a logjam of exceptional backups, featuring redshirt sophomore John David Booty, redshirt freshman Rocky Hinds and true freshman Mark Sanchez.
Booty was in such a hurry to contribute at the college level that he skipped his senior year of high school in Shreveport, La., in 2003 to enroll at USC. Now he must adjust to a third season of backup duties.
"I feel I'm ready to play, but sometimes it doesn't go the way you want it to," he said. "You have to find the positive in the situation. Peyton [Manning] came back for his senior year. Matt came back. It's not the end of the world. I'm happy for Matt."
Recognizing that Booty and others could grow restless, USC Coach Pete Carroll said Friday that the backups would receive increased playing opportunities.
"I would hope that John David would get a tremendous amount of playing time next year if he ends up the No. 2 guy," Carroll said. "Had he been available, we would have looked to do that from the beginning of [this past] season. We have to make sure we can maintain our level if Matt gets nicked."
Booty, 6 feet 3 and 195 pounds, would have been the leading candidate to replace Leinart. He earned the No. 2 spot as a freshman, then redshirted this season after an elbow injury sidelined him in August.
One of Carroll's greatest achievements at USC has been creating an environment that encourages competition at every position. Few players have walked away from the challenge.
If Booty were to transfer to another Division I-A program, he would have to sit out a season, leaving him with only two years of eligibility remaining.
Offensive coordinator Norm Chow said it would be "silly" for Booty to think about transferring. He recalled how Leinart waited two years to replace Carson Palmer, who won the Heisman trophy in his final year. Two years later, Leinart, too, won the Heisman.
"I don't see it as a problem," Chow said. "It's an opportunity to sit and learn, which Leinart did behind Carson."
Said Booty's father, John: "I guess it's just a decision John has to evaluate, talk to Pete and Norm and go from there. John has never mentioned [transferring] to me as something to consider."
Booty passed up a high school senior season in which he would have been the nation's top quarterback prospect. His strong arm and knowledge of USC's offense put him ahead of Hinds, who is 6-4, 225 pounds and has tremendous athletic skills but is still learning the offense.
"I look at it as another year to sit back and learn from the best quarterback in the nation," Hinds said of Leinart's return. "The competition makes you a better player."
Perhaps the biggest winner coming out of Leinart's decision is Sanchez, a 6-3, 215-pound All-American from Mission Viejo High. Coming in next fall, he would have been at a disadvantage trying to catch up to Booty and Hinds. Now he'll have a year to learn USC's offense before spring practice begins in 2006 to decide the heir apparent to Leinart.
"I'm just happy he's staying," Sanchez said from San Antonio, where he will play today in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. "It was in the best interest for him."
Sanchez's accuracy as a passer and calmness under pressure put him in the equation to be Leinart's successor.
"Mark Sanchez is one of the most prepared football players to come in as a freshman as anyone I've seen," said Steve Clarkson, a private quarterback coach who ran the CaliFlorida all-star game in Miami. "He's got a natural feel for the position that you just can't teach."
There's probably no group of USC players more excited about Leinart's decision than the receivers.
"Leinart coming back is huge," receiver Steve Smith said. "It's great, all the depth we have. It makes everyone work hard, from the ones to the twos to the threes. I'm really excited about the offense next year. We can be really explosive and put up some big numbers."