- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 30, 2003

Talk about your daunting debuts. When Matt Leinart steps onto the field tonight in front of 86,000 riled Tiger fans at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, there will be no escaping the spotlight.

You won’t be able to miss USC’s 6-foot-5, 220-pound redshirt sophomore. He’ll be the one trying to hide behind center Norm Katnik, who spent the last two seasons snapping the ball to Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer.

Leinart will be the one trying to bark signals amid thunder on the Plains. He’ll be the one who will begin each play staring across the line at Auburn’s salivating All-American linebacker duo of Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas. He’ll be the one who hasn’t thrown a pass in a game since a 2000 high school All-Star contest. He’ll be the first-time starter at quarterback expected to continue last season’s revival of Troy against No.6 Auburn.

“It’s about as drastic as you can go,” said USC coach Pete Carroll, describing the circumstances surrounding Leinart’s debut. “Carson Palmer had a marvelous year and really benefited from the system and the players around him. What we want to have happen is to have our starting quarterback again benefit from those things. Hopefully, we are able to transition with a young guy. He’s a bright kid who knows our system very well.”

Sure. But this isn’t a playbook test conducted in the office of offensive coordinator Norm Chow. This is a practical exam conducted in front of a hostile crowd, a CBS audience and a defense capable of ruining Leinart’s career before it even starts.

“We’re not asking Matt to win the game for us,” Chow told the Los Angeles Times . “He can let the other guys win the game for us. He just has to manage it properly. We need efficient, effective leadership, and he gives that to us.”

Where — in 7-on-7 drills back in SoCal?

When — in practice while he’s wearing a red no-contact jersey?

“I feel like I haven’t played in forever,” Leinart said. “It’s going to be a tough game, a tough crowd. Oh man, it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be some kind of experience.”

Sure, it should be a “fun” experience on the order of giving birth in the New York subway system.

Nobody denies that Leinart has some talent. He was a highly recruited high school star out of California prep powerhouse Mater Dei in 2000. And of the four quarterbacks competing for the USC job, Leinhart has the strongest arm.

Purdue transfer Brandon Hance is more mobile but had a disappointing fall camp. Junior Matt Cassell is more of a playmaker but also more prone to mistakes. And though freshman John David Booty, the mammoth talent out of Louisiana, is quicker and more accurate, he’s still too green. Or perhaps he’s simply too valuable to be tossed to the Tigers in what could be a confidence-crippling road opener.

The word from inside the USC program is that Booty is the future, the very near future. He became the first prep quarterback in memory to skip his senior season in high school. Booty completed a summer course in Spanish, so he could graduate in June and join the Trojans this season. And observers who have watched the four in practice claim there is no comparison between the superior skills of Booty and the trio of others.

But Carroll and Chow are wary of tossing Booty into the fray too quickly. And Chow has said that Booty will see game action against the Trojans’ fourth opponent at the earliest. USC has a two-week gap between its third and fourth games, giving Booty two weeks to prepare for what could be his first start against California on Sept.27.

“Right now, Matt is the starter,” Chow said. “If John David or somebody else beats him out later on, then so be it.”

So while Booty learns the offense and adjusts to the speed of the college game, Leinart will keep his place in the pocket warm. And tonight at Jordan-Hare, the USC pocket could be a hot spot indeed.

“He’s just one of a number of guys out there who can hurt you, so we can’t obsess about him,” Dansby said. “But it’s definitely fair to say we want to see how an inexperienced guy like that handles the heat. You want to send a guy like that an early welcoming party.”

On the optimistic side, Leinart does have an excellent supporting cast. The No.8 Trojans return four starters from last season’s superb offensive front, plus the nation’s best corps of receivers, highlighted by physical possession dynamo Mike Williams (6-foot-5, 225 pounds).

But like Leinart, the tailback behind him will be making his first start for the Trojans (either sophomore Hershel Dennis or true freshman Reggie Bush), a fact that places the pressure squarely on the shoulders of the young QB and USC’s passing game.

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