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No Free Passes

USC is a preseason favorite to play in BCS title game at the Superdome, and Louisiana-bred QB Booty is a Heisman front-runner. Challenge is to not look ahead.

August 05, 2007|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

In much the same way he would read a blitz at the line of scrimmage, USC quarterback John David Booty recognized the situation.

He knew the query was coming.

"I don't want to even talk about it," a chuckling Booty said of the prospect of playing in the Bowl Championship Series title game in New Orleans.

It has been more than four years since the Louisiana-bred Booty graduated from high school a year early and ventured west to USC. He endured a long wait behind Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, overcame back surgery and broke out during a 2006 season that ended with a superb performance in a Rose Bowl victory over Michigan.

Now, with USC atop most preseason polls, Booty is regarded as a Heisman front-runner, a player who could lead the Trojans to their third BCS title-game appearance in four years.

A championship game that will be played in the Louisiana Superdome.

"You couldn't draw it up any better -- it's like a Hollywood script," Booty said, grudgingly. "But it's not something that I think about.

"We've got a long way to go. The only thing I'm focusing on is getting ready for our first game against Idaho."

USC players report today for training camp in preparation for their Sept. 1 opener at the Coliseum.

The 12-game schedule includes nonconference games at Nebraska and Notre Dame and potential Pacific 10 Conference roadblocks at Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona State.

And, of course, the season finale at the Coliseum against rival UCLA, which ended the Trojans' 2006 national-championship hopes with a 13-9 upset at the Rose Bowl.

Booty put that defeat behind him with a stellar game against Michigan that immediately made the Trojans a national-title favorite and turned the quarterback into a preseason cover boy for numerous publications.

Most pick the Trojans to be playing in New Orleans on Jan. 7.

"To think that he could come home and play in the Superdome would be something," Booty's father, Johnny, said by phone from Shreveport, La. "I don't have a day that I don't run into people here hoping that will be the case."

Booty certainly feels at home in the Superdome.

In 2001 and 2002 he led Evangel Christian Academy to state-championship game victories in the building.

But Booty probably would not receive a warm welcome if the Trojans played Louisiana State in the title game, a scenario some college football observers predict. LSU, for example, was ranked second behind the Trojans in the USA Today coaches' poll released last week.

USC and LSU have been entwined since the 2003 season when LSU defeated Oklahoma in the BCS title game and USC beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl. LSU won the BCS national title and finished first atop the coaches' poll, but USC remained No. 1 in the Associated Press media poll.

Many LSU fans were angry last February when top Louisiana high school running back Joe McKnight announced he would leave his home state and attend USC. LSU Coach Les Miles continued to stoke the flames of a rivalry this summer with comments that seemed to denigrate several of USC's Pac-10 opponents.

Booty's oldest brother Josh, played quarterback at LSU. He cannot picture a more perfect BCS title game than USC against the Tigers.

"It's going to be a big one, especially if Les Miles and company are there," Josh Booty said, laughing. "Knowing those fans, they'll be smelling blood. It would be absolutely unreal."

John David spent the off-season preparing for a potential national-title run, focusing especially on improving his strength and quickness and becoming comfortable with a corps of receivers who must fill the void left by the departures of Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith.

He also worked with senior center Matt Spanos, who opens training camp as the replacement for three-year starter Ryan Kalil, and drilled against a defense that returns 10 starters and was expected to rank among the nation's elite.

Booty even put off returning home to attend the wedding of childhood friend and former high school teammate Jacob Hester, a running back for LSU.

"It's important as a leader to show you're going to be there each and every day," Booty said. "[Hester] understands, especially because he's a football player. As a quarterback, it's really my duty to be around and not skip out when other guys are here working hard to get ready."

Coach Pete Carroll recalled monitoring Carson Palmer and Leinart as the former USC quarterbacks prepared for what would become their Heisman-winning seasons. Booty is more than ready for his role as the face of the program, according to Carroll.

"He's done everything he can do -- the path is clear for him to have a terrific season," Carroll said.

Booty agrees. The way he sees it, there is great opportunity for the Trojans and for him. Booty embraces it with a sense of enthusiasm, not pressure.

"It's my time," he said.

gary.klein@latimes.com

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