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Falling Stars

Bush's slip to No. 2 starts a USC trend: Leinart goes 10th, White and Justice in second round

April 30, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — One of the few knocks on USC quarterback Matt Leinart was he had too many people buzzing around him -- handlers, Hollywood types, etc. Yet Saturday afternoon, sitting in the family area at NFL draft headquarters, after all the other elite players had been selected, Leinart was conspicuously alone.

Pick by pick, tick by tick, he waited with his parents and a few representatives to hear his name called.

Finally, the Arizona Cardinals took him with the 10th pick, selecting the 2004 Heisman Trophy winner who led the Trojans to two national championships and once was thought to be a serious contender for the No. 1 slot.

"It wasn't even that bad," Leinart said of the wait. "Still a top-10 pick. I didn't expect that, but you've got to go into this just thinking not [to] get your hopes up.... Obviously it's out of my hands and out of my control."

Still, for some of those closest to him, time slowed to a crawl as the room cleared out, with North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams going first to Houston -- he was signed by the Texans the night before -- USC running back Reggie Bush going second to New Orleans and Texas quarterback Vince Young going third to Tennessee.

On a day when four potential USC first-rounders slid down the draft board -- running back LenDale White, tackle Winston Justice, safety Darnell Bing and tight end Dominique Byrd -- Leinart saw four teams that needed a quarterback pass him by.

White, once a potential top-10 selection, was taken in the second round by Tennessee, which used the 45th pick on him despite a newspaper report -- later denied by his agent -- that he had failed an NFL drug test. Also in the second round, Philadelphia took Justice and Arizona took USC guard Taitusi Lutui. UCLA tight end Marcedes Lewis was selected 28th by Jacksonville; his Bruin teammate, running back Maurice Drew, also went to the Jaguars, in the second round with the 60th overall pick.

White told The Times that he took one drug test, at the combine, and was never advised of the results. Later, Tennessee Coach Jeff Fisher said the report of White's positive test was false.

USC linebacker Frostee Rucker was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals in the third round, 91st overall, and two picks later the St. Louis Rams took Trojan tight end Dominique Byrd.

However, two USC players who gave up their senior seasons for the draft, guard Fred Matua and safety Darnell Bing, were not taken on the first day.

Three North Carolina State defensive linemen were selected in the first round, and four Florida State defensive players went in the first 19 picks. Four running backs -- beginning with Bush -- were taken in the first round, but only one receiver.

There was almost no waiting around for Bush. The Saints got the player they had all but written off as a future Houston Texan. Bush hadn't even visited their facility, as other elite prospects had.

"I talked to Coach [Sean] Payton and he said that when they found out I wasn't going to Houston, they threw all the draft cards in the air and they were doing back flips and all that," Bush said. "Any organization that's pumped up about me makes me feel good."

Bob McNair, owner of the Texans, said the Williams-versus-Bush decision came down to which player could make a more dramatic impact, not which one would be easier to sign. McNair said the controversy surrounding the alleged financial dealings of Bush and his family was not a factor in the choice.

"You know, look at it this way, if we had Bush, would we outscore Indianapolis? Our decision was no," McNair said. "What's our best chance of beating Indianapolis? That's with a pass rush, and that's Mario Williams."

Leinart said he wasn't shifting in his seat, but some of the people with him clearly were.

"I kept looking up at that 15-minute clock," said his agent, Chuck Price, "and it was just stuck there at 14:56."

First, he was passed over by the Tennessee Titans, who employ former Trojan offensive coordinator Norm Chow. Then, the New York Jets, Oakland Raiders and Detroit Lions -- all of whom were in the market for a quarterback -- instead took an offensive tackle and two safeties.

Then again, Leinart didn't have to wait half as long as quarterback Aaron Rodgers did a year earlier, when the onetime potential top pick sat around for nearly five hours before Green Bay selected him 24th. There is serious financial sting associated with both tumbles. Leinart is likely to get about half the cash he might have gotten if, say, Tennessee had picked him third. The No. 3 pick in 2005, Cleveland's Braylon Edwards, received $20.6 million in guaranteed money, whereas the 10th pick, Detroit's Mike Williams, got $10.5 million.

Leinart said he had several encouraging talks in recent days with Chow and still thought there was a chance Tennessee might choose him.

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