Leinart 'miles ahead' of last year
Practice already had broken up. Most of the USC players had filed off the field. All except Trojan QB Matt Leinart who stood at the far end of the field Tuesday afternoon lofting up corner route after corner route to USC receivers. A few feet away, QB coach Carl Smith and Trojan offensive coordinator Norm Chow each observed like proud parents as the All-American quarterback floated the ball into the arms of his targets. Leinart wasn't perfect, though, and when he overshot Willie Buchanon, the junior QB jerked his head back and smacked his hands together as if he just misfired on a fourth-and-long play.
You could say Leinart's contracted Ken Dorseyitis, meaning in the media's eyes, he has been digested. Many are saying he's not even the best player in the Trojans backfield, much less the country (a la the Willis McGahee example in Dorsey's case.) Some have even gone so far to say Leinart's not the player he was last year. They're right. He's been much better.
Leinart's numbers through four games are dramatically better than they were at the same stage last year. His completion percentage has jumped from 58 percent to 68 percent. He's cut his INTs from 6 to 2 and his QB efficiency rating has gone from 132.27 to 155.11. Given all the personnel that he's lost, that's impressive.
"He's done a tremendous job because we don't have the veteran guys like last year," says Chow. "Sure his numbers could be better -- he could have numbers like (Kyle) Orton, but that doesn't matter to him. All he wants to do is win."
Leinart downplayed any revenge factor. He said he took the loss at Cal personally, but so much is different now. "Last year is last year," he says. "This is a whole new year. I didn't play well last time, but I was a young guy finding my way. I'm a bit more seasoned now. I feel like, in comparison, I am miles ahead of where I was. I was just trying to hold down my spot back then. I wasn't the player I would be three weeks later. The game has definitely slowed down more."
So what happened?
"Richie just realized he doesn't want to sit out a season then wait and play another season," says the lineman's father Richie Incognito Sr. "He did say Oregon has a great program up there but after all was said and done, he feels its useless to sit out a season and start all over again in the spring."
That also helps explain why another similarly styled team Wake Forest led the ACC in rushing last year and is No. 2 this season. "It's a real pain in the butt for our guys to prepare for," says one ACC coach, "because it gets in their heads and makes them play slow."
"Playing them (Minnesota)," says one Big Ten coach, "is like playing on a field with some steaks tied to your socks and there's a bunch of pit bulls running around."
Three years ago, the Red River Shootout was decided by the best player on the field, OU superstar Roy Williams. Johnson has been spectacular this season and has the talent to do the same. Last week he had 11 tackles, 3 TFLs, tipped a pass that resulted in an INT and recorded his fifth forced fumble of the season. Sure, it was against Baylor, but don't be surprised if he is the player everyone is talking about come Saturday night.
"That's a myth," the coach says. "They're getting some talent. We recruited a lot of their kids, and to be honest, we really wanted some of those guys. A few of them looked like Superman. But you watch them on tape now and you're like 'That's so-and-so? Man, what happened?' These kids aren't developing. It's actually like they're regressing athletically when they get there. That tells me the problem isn't just the coaching in practices, but in the weight room too."
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment is out in bookstores. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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