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Leinart targets another crown



Published: Wed, July 6, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The USC QB hopes to repeat 2004's unbeaten season.

THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE

LOS ANGELES -- Go ahead, ask Matt Leinart what it's like to pass up the chance to turn professional for millions of dollars. Or, how it feels to lose USC offensive guru Norm Chow to the NFL.

Answering those questions directly, he makes one clear point: Neither matters now.

Nor does this: A second straight unbeaten season at USC could help Leinart finish his career as certifiably the greatest quarterback in college football history, with a 38-1 record, three national titles and maybe a pair of Heisman Trophies. No other quarterback has come close to that trifecta.

It's just not something Leinart dwells on.

"I mostly think about winning," is his answer. "The records speak for themselves."

But Leinart does look back at one reference point.

"Last year, I think I only played at 75 percent," he said.

Glory year

And yet it was still a season in which he followed up his Heisman selection in December with an MVP and Orange Bowl record five-touchdown passing performance against Oklahoma in January.

So what would he be like at 100 percent, with no elbow brace for the painful tendinitis?

"I'd like to find out," said Leinart, who sat out of spring practice because he was recovering from surgery to repair the elbow.

By summer, the 22-year-old was throwing without pain during workouts in preparation for his senior season. When he's not on the field, he's in offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's office watching NFL films, or talking football with veteran quarterbacks like Rich Gannon.

Other times, he's just "laying low" until the team's first practice a month from now.

That's what he said. The same guy who threw out the first pitch at an Angels game, appeared on the ESPY Awards show and even made it to the Playboy All-American team photo shoot in Arizona.

"I'm not that guy," he said. "Sometimes I get overwhelmed by all the attention I get. That's why I've been laying low."

Not an easy task.

Constant spotlight

One day last week, a poster on a USC fans' Web site announced that "Matt Leinart is at Crespi High School right now" for a summer league basketball game and listed the school's address in Encino in case "you want to run over there."

"He doesn't put himself on a pedestal," added USC assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian, back after a year with the Oakland Raiders. "Look at him, he even dresses the same."

The same as his teammates and the same as he did last year, right down to the baseball cap, oversized basketball workout gear and those retro low-cut Converse canvas Chuck Taylors.

Of course there is one difference, noted Sarkisian, who remembers Leinart as the fourth-string freshman who didn't throw a pass until his third season.

"He's so mature," said Sarkisian, at 31 just nine years older than Leinart.

That close connection is something Leinart likes.

Hard work

"Sark knows how hard I work," Leinart said, "and worked when I was all the way at the bottom. He knows if I ever get out of line, and I never do, but he'd have a hard hand on me."

Such talk echoes remarks by Kiffin and head coach Pete Carroll.

In two years, Leinart has gone from a redshirt sophomore who hadn't completed a pass to where he is now.

"He's just done an unbelievable job handling all this," said Kiffin, 30, a former Fresno State quarterback. "But the thing is, he's never pushed to go fast. His genius is how fast he's been able to go by staying within the system."

That really doesn't matter, Carroll said. Not now.

"Matt Leinart isn't the Heisman Trophy winner for this year, he's last year's Heisman Trophy winner."

Last year is last year, Leinart agreed. And that's where it stays. All of it, including his stunning decision to stay in college rather than go to the NFL, where he likely would have been the No. 1 overall choice.

HJe paid attention to the NFL draft in April, but mostly "to see where my friends went," Leinart said.

As for Chow, now offensive coordinator with the Tennessee Titans, Leinart will always remember their four years together, but they haven't talked in a month but expects to get together with him when Chow is back in California this month.

Will he play with Chow's voice in his head?

"Not really," Leinart said. "I also had the great coaches around him."

As always, Leinart will listen and figure things out for himself.

"That's my ability," he said, "to see things." And then to make something happen.

"It's hard to win two in a row," he said. "It's hard to win one. That's why we're really in a cool situation here. It's sweet."




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