- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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USC's Matt Leinart might be the nation's best sophomore quarterback. His midseason numbers are better than the man he replaced, Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer. He's dating a professional surfer/model.
He's exceeded everyone's expectations and led his team to a No. 4 national ranking. He's everything a USC quarterback should be.
And he might not be the Trojans' starter next season.
As bizarre as that might sound, this isn't a case of a media-created quarterback controversy. When USC coaches decided to promote true freshman John David Booty to backup quarterback and sacrifice his redshirt season by playing him against Stanford, they made clear their plan to stage what figures to be a fascinating quarterback
competition this spring.
"Absolutely," coach Pete Carroll said when asked if that was his intention. "That's what our program is based on, competition. I think that's a good thing for all of us. Matt is well aware of that."
The reasoning is clear. Booty is special, and not only because he is believed to be the first football player to graduate from high school a year early in order to play for a major Division I-A program.
Booty, 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, threw for 8,286 yards and 87 touchdowns his last two years at Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport, La., a school that has won eight state championships since 1989 and has sent three other quarterbacks to major programs -- John David's older brother Josh, who played for LSU, Miami's Brock Berlin and Oklahoma's Brent Rawls.
Booty likely would have been the nation's No. 1 prep quarterback this season had he remained in high school. But after his father, Johnny, Evangel's quarterbacks coach, was controversially fired, apparently due to a conflict over the elder Booty's Bible study group that ran afoul philosophically with the school's founder, he opted to graduate early and start his college career.
While Leinart was winning a five-way battle to succeed Palmer -- and winning the affections of Veronica Kay, best known for her work on the WB network's reality show "Boarding House: North Shore" -- Booty was learning the offense and impressing coaches with his arm and his savvy.
All Leinart has done is complete 62 percent of his passes for 1,824 yards with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He ranks 10th in the nation in quarterback efficiency, with a rating 23 points high than Palmer achieved through seven games a year ago.
When quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian talks about Leinart he raves about his poise, leadership, intelligence and decision-making. But when asked about Booty, who completed 1-of-4 passes in his only appearance, the terms change.
"He's a little different than Matt; he's extremely gifted," Sarkisian said. "He also has a feel for the game and he's a cool customer for a young kid."
Leinart and Booty, who room together before games, don't appear to be
allowing the impending competition damage their relationship. Leinart spends much of his time teasing Booty about his southern accent.
Booty admits Leinart has been "tearing it up." He's not some 18-year-old prima donna with an ego that belongs on a Hollywood set. He's not demanding the job using the threat of a transfer as a cudgel.
"I'm just looking to compete; that's all I ask for," Booty said. "Whoever wins, wins."
Of course, at this point, Leinart, who will lead the Trojans at Washington on Saturday, is unquestionably the man. While he tiptoes around the question a bit, he makes it clear he intends to stay that way.
"There's going to be competition, but I feel like this is my team and I'm leading this team for the next couple of years," he said.
Yet it's impossible not to see the parallels between a similar situation from a few years ago at Texas, where established starter Major Applewhite was locked in a seemingly endless struggle with hotshot recruit Chris Simms.
That back-and-forth competition was debated ad naseum by the media and fans, often to the detriment of the team. The hindsight review was coach Mack Brown mishandled the situation.
Carroll rejected the possibility of a similar scenario playing out at USC. He noted that Leinart's numbers have dramatically improved since Booty's elevation. Leinart has passed for 900 yards and nine touchdowns in the last three games, including a career-best 351 yards and four touchdowns against Notre Dame last weekend.
Carroll believes having two capable, young quarterbacks locked in competition will only make them both better.
"It's a beautiful thing," he said.
Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
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