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COLUMN ONE

That early college try

Quarterbacks Richard Brehaut at UCLA and Matt Barkley at USC are among a growing number of 'greenshirts' who finish their senior year early so they can join their college teams for spring practice.

April 25, 2009|David Wharton

The young quarterback rolled out and found himself, quite suddenly, alone. No linemen blocking, no receiver breaking open, only tacklers bearing down.

At that point, UCLA freshman Richard Brehaut realized he had turned right when the play was supposed to go left. It was only practice, but coaches pulled him off the field, yelling.

"I screwed up," he said. "They got on me real good."

Across town at USC, another new quarterback faced a subtler "Welcome to College" moment when he showed up for his first off-season meeting in January and looked around the room at older, larger players, some of them headed for the NFL next year.

"I don't want to say it's intimidating," Matt Barkley recalled, "but you're with a bunch of men."

At a time of life when most of their peers are cruising through the final, breezy days of high school, Brehaut and Barkley have chosen a different route, pounding the books at college and dodging 280-pound linemen on the football field.

They belong to a rare but growing breed -- informally called "greenshirts" -- who finish their senior year early so they can enter college at midterm and join their new teams in time for spring practice. NCAA rules allow them to participate in scrimmages and months of off-season conditioning before the August date when freshmen usually report for training camp.

USC Coach Pete Carroll has watched the idea gain traction, which makes him wonder.

"I don't try to talk guys into it," he said. "I kind of go the other way."

Carroll sees a trade-off: Young players gain football experience at the expense of memorable moments such as their prom or a few more months with childhood friends.

"Things that happen at the end of their senior year only happen once," he said. "And even if it isn't important to the kid, it's important to the family."

For many years, only a trickle of recruits arrived on campus ahead of schedule. According to an annual USA Today survey, there were 15 early enrollees at the 66 biggest football schools in 2002. But that number has risen, hitting 105 last year. This winter, preliminary tracking by the scouting website Rivals.com counted at least 103 greenshirts. The expectation is that this year's total will surpass 2008's.

The list includes blue-chip prospects such as Texas offensive lineman Mason Walters and Michigan defensive tackle William Campbell, as well as numerous top quarterbacks: Russell Shepard at Louisiana State, Cody Green at Nebraska, and Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray at Georgia.

"They have to learn what to do, the Georgia way of practice, meetings, lifting, running and just how to be a student at the college level," Georgia Coach Mark Richt said.

As Texas Coach Mack Brown put it: "Their hearts are pumping pretty fast right now."

That would fit Brehaut and Barkley as they embarked on college football, along with the challenge of tougher schoolwork and a new social stratosphere.

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The two quarterbacks are comparable in size: over 6 feet tall, about 220 pounds. Both are fair-haired and self-assured in the manner of successful athletes.

For Barkley, the decision to enroll early had its roots in a childhood dream of playing for the Trojans. He couldn't wait to get started.

The 18-year-old possessed a rocket arm and field savvy, the requisite pedigree as a top-ranked prep quarterback. Just as important, he had maturity -- a sense of "been there, done that" -- from starting all four years for the nationally prominent team at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana.

"He said, 'Dad, I'm done with high school,' " recalled his father, Les, who played water polo for the Trojans in the late 1970s. "He pretty much had nothing else to accomplish."

The history of greenshirts at USC encompassed only a dozen or so players over the last decade, including offensive lineman Jacob Rogers, safety Kevin Ellison and quarterback John David Booty, who arrived a full year early.

Barkley understood the challenges, saying: "If there's any doubt, I think you should stay in high school. Have fun while you can."

Determined to follow through, he began taking extra classes at Mater Dei a year ago, as a junior.

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For Brehaut, spring always meant baseball, another sport he loved, so the senior at Los Osos High in Rancho Cucamonga had no plans to cut his final year short.

Then UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel called. Last season, the Bruins' starting quarterback threw far too many interceptions, so Neuheisel was opening up the competition for that spot.

"We just thought that if he was going to have a chance to be a legitimate contender in the fall, he was going to have to go through his growing pains in the spring," Neuheisel said.

The suggestion sparked Brehaut's competitive nature.

"His first reaction was, 'Oh, yeah, I want to do that,' " said his mother, Yvonne. "We wanted him to take a moment, take a deep breath."

A discussion ensued, no surprise in a home where the family kept a whiteboard with the pros and cons of each school that had recruited Brehaut.

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