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Leinart is NFL ready, but will he go?

1/6/2005

For weeks, USC quarterback Matt Leinart has been saying that he wants to return to the Trojans for his senior year. He has no intention, he said, of leaving a year early for the NFL. But he left himself a small escape hatch, saying that he would have to look at every opportunity.

He will have a big one. Unlike last April, when quarterbacks Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger went in the first 11 selections, this year's crop of quarterback prospects doesn't appear to be nearly as impressive. If Leinart decides to come out early, he will immediately move to the top of the class that includes Kyle Orton of Purdue, Dan Orlovsky of Connecticut, David Greene of Georgia, and Leinart's opposite in the Orange Bowl, Jason White of Oklahoma.

Next year, Leinart would be part of a class that could include prospects such as Chris Leak of Florida, Trent Edwards of Stanford, and, if he doesn't come out this year, too, Aaron Rodgers of California.

Oregon State coach Mike Riley, who has moved from the college game to the pro game and back over the last decade, said that Leinart's ability from the neck up will be alluring to the NFL.

"I've watched Keyshawn (Johnson) stay in," said Riley, a former USC assistant, "and Steven (Jackson, the former Beaver tailback) go out, and I thought they were both good decisions. The quality of his (Leinart's) decision-making and the number of snaps he has taken in the Pac-10 mean he has a chance to be ready to go. Quarterback is hard. But he's played enough."

Leinart has started 25 consecutive games, and won 24 of them. Another 12 starts in college would only make him better. The question is whether the lure of that season can maintain an edge in Leinart's mind over the lure of standing on a stage in New York with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.