Successor's Story USC's Matt Leinart looks prepared to pick up where Heisman winner Carson Palmer left off

September 07, 2003

In three decades as a coach, USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow
has used hundreds of elaborate practice drills. But this summer
he had sophomore quarterback Matt Leinart doing countless reps of
a yawningly basic footwork exercise that Chow simply calls Reset.
"We simulate a pass rush and force Matt to simply shift his feet
rather than back up in the pocket against pressure," says Chow.
"The goal is that we not lose a single step."

Consider that a goal achieved. With a convincing 23-0 victory
over Auburn, which was picked as a preseason No. 1 by two
national publications, Southern California proved that it hasn't
lost a step despite the departure of several key players from
last year's 11-2 team.

Two-time All-America strong safety Troy Polamalu departed for the
NFL last spring? No matter. With a veteran defensive line and an
able successor to Polamalu in freshman Darnell Bing, who had an
interception and a fumble recovery, the Trojans' defense yielded
no points and just 164 yards. And what about the loss of
Heisman-winning quarterback Carson Palmer? Led by the poised
Leinart, who completed 17 of 30 passes for 192 yards, a touchdown
and no interceptions in his first college start, USC's offense
was efficient (4 for 4 in the red zone) against a tough Auburn
defense.

The 6'5", 220-pound Leinart entered Saturday's game as an
unknown, a lefthander from Santa Ana, Calif., who had done a
little better than the four other quarterbacks jockeying to
replace Palmer. Before taking the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium,
where the raucous crowds create an atmosphere in which even the
most experienced visiting signal-caller feels a little like Mel
Gibson in Thunderdome, the sophomore hadn't attempted a college
pass. And yet on the eve of his nationally televised debut
Leinart slept "really well," by his account, and once he loped
onto the field for his first series, he looked as comfortable as
a kid in his own backyard.

A handful of friends and family members who made the trip from
Southern California say that Leinart has always been cool under
pressure. Leinart's girlfriend, Veronica Kay, a professional
surfer who is no stranger to competition, marvels at Leinart's
"ability to be confident and secure in front of a hundred times
more people than I will ever be forced to compete in front of."
Says Leinart's mother, Linda, "He called me Saturday morning just
to let me know that he was feeling fine. I asked him if that was
really true, and he said, 'Trust me, Mom. I'm good.'"

Make that quite good. After hitting sophomore wideout Mike
Williams for a five-yard touchdown on USC's first series, Leinart
scattered passes among seven receivers in a virtually
mistake-free performance. Though he isn't blessed with
electrifying mobility or a particularly strong arm, Leinart
displayed a calm that might have as much to do with his
enthusiasm for yoga as with Coach Chow's Reset drills.

The moment that made Chow most hopeful about the rest of USC's
season, which continues at home on Saturday against BYU, came
during a conversation with his new quarterback in the middle of
the third quarter. After the drive on which he suffered his only
sack, Leinart picked up the phone to talk with Chow, who was
calling plays from the press box. "I opened my mouth to speak and
then heard Matt say, 'I need to keep my feet still; I'm playing
too anxious,'" says Chow, who gave Leinart a B for his
performance against Auburn. "He took the words right out of my
mouth. He identifies exactly what he's doing wrong. And he's
doing a lot of things right." --Kelley King

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO COOL CUSTOMER Leinart displayed no nerves as he dissected Auburn's vaunted D.

Leinart showed a calm that had as much to do with his ENTHUSIASM
FOR YOGA as with Chow's Reset drills.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)