Wednesday, August 31, 2005

USC quarterback Matt Leinart already has two national championships and a Heisman Trophy under his belt.

Leinart playing
for passion

USC's leader says the NFL
and another Heisman rank
below the fun of the game

USC at Hawaii

Where: Aloha Stadium

When: Saturday, Sept. 3

Time: 1 p.m.

TV: Live, ESPN2

Radio: KKEA-1420

Internet: sportsradio1420.com

Stadium security: No weapons, backpacks, coolers, umbrellas or megaphones are allowed in the stadium. Fanny packs, purses and handbags will be permitted subject to check.

He owns a Heisman Trophy and has led USC to two consecutive national championships. His team, riding a 22-game winning streak, is the preseason No. 1 and a favorite by more than 30 points heading into Saturday's opener against Hawaii at Aloha Stadium.

Did Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart really present himself as an underdog in a radio interview yesterday? And pull it off?

"We don't care about being favored," Leinart said in a humble voice, when asked about the pressure of always being expected to win and win big. "We were underdogs in the bowl game."

Some people forget that. Especially since the Trojans clobbered Oklahoma 55-19 at the Orange Bowl to take their 11th national title.

Somehow, Leinart, the face of college football's most powerful machine, manages to give USC's sometimes annoyingly golden and brash image a tint of humility.

A lot of it has to do with his choice to remain at USC for his senior season instead of leaving for the NFL Draft and certain millions after last year.

"It's not about trying to win another Heisman," said Leinart, who could join Archie Griffin, the only two-time winner of college football's biggest individual award. "It's really about trying to win a third national championship and getting better as a player. The next level is a business. I'm playing for passion and love of the game."

Leinart hung out with celebrities like Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson in the offseason. But he hasn't forgotten old friends like Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan. Leinart and Brennan were teammates at Mater Dei High School, a powerhouse prep football program in Santa Ana, Calif.

"I just called him a few days ago. We're playing phone tag. We used to be best friends in high school, but we went to different schools and started our own separate paths," Leinart said at his weekly news conference yesterday. "We used to joke in high school about playing against each other in college. Who would've thought that in my fifth year that I'd get a chance to play against him in Hawaii. It's awesome to see him doing well and I'm proud of him."

Brennan, a sophomore transfer from Saddleback Community College, and second-year freshman Tyler Graunke are both expected to play extensively at quarterback for Hawaii on Saturday.

"(Leinart) said a lot of our friends back home are talking about it," Brennan said of his phone message from the quarterback he backed up as a high school sophomore and junior. "It's pretty cool. I'm excited. I can't wait to get out there and get going. We've always been good friends. It's just that we don't hang out as much because we live so far away from each other. We hung out a lot, playing basketball at the rec center stuff like that. He was probably my best friend during high school. We were such good friends people made fun of us about it."

Leinart got teased for other things when he was a younger child. He was overweight and cross-eyed.

"It's just a terrible thing because kids are cruel to the fat kid, to the kid with the glasses," he said. "So I turned to sports."

He's never been considered a natural, except for his years at Mater Dei. Leinart said he had a tough adjustment to make not playing his first two years at USC, and his attitude suffered at times. But former USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow said Leinart was ready when he did get his chance.

"He gives his team efficient, effective leadership," Chow said.

Said Leinart: "I'm not the most physically gifted kid. I'm not going to scare anybody with my arm or my running ability. But I feel like my mind sets me apart. And my accuracy."

Hawaii coach June Jones said Leinart's precision extends to his self-evaluation.

"He's a very accurate passer," Jones said of the 6-foot-5, 225-pound lefty. "He is competitive and has great vision. He understands their system very well, having played in it for a couple years now. He's like a coach on the field."

Leinart lost a mentor in the offseason when Chow, a Punahou graduate, left for the Tennessee Titans.

"Of course I miss him, we had a great relationship," Leinart told the Associated Press. "I love Coach Chow, we'll be friends forever."

UH injury update: No. 1 defensive tackle Renolds Fruean (hip flexor) sat out again yesterday, and it lessened his chances of playing Saturday.

"I don't know. He didn't practice today and I thought he would," Jones said. "I'm not excited about playing guys who don't practice."

Nose tackle remains wide open with Reagan Mauia, Lawrence Wilson, Fale Laeli, Siave Seti and Tony Akpan all battling for playing time, defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville said.

Left cornerback Kenny Patton is making progress after last week's arthroscopic knee surgery, but probably not enough to play Saturday. He said he can backpedal and cut, but hadn't tried to run full speed as of the end of yesterday's practice.

"I haven't experienced any pain and there's no swelling," Patton said. "So those are positives."

Glanville said backup Keao Monteilh can do the job if Patton can't go.

"Thirty-five (Monteilh) is one of the smartest guys we have. I don't think 35 will make a mental error," Glanville said. "Woody Hayes said if players don't make an error and they have a good mama and daddy, you always have a chance to beat everybody. Woody Hayes' philosophy is you don't win with talented bums, you win with smart people with character. Thirty-five is maybe off the chart on both of those."

Tour de Manoa: It's become a post-practice ritual for players recovering from leg surgeries and minor injuries, especially linebackers Tanuvasa Moe, Ikaika Curnan and Adam Leonard, to hop on teammates' bicycles and pedal around the soccer field, with Glanville conducting match races.

"I'm trying to get five more bikes for our injured guys," the defensive coordinator said yesterday.

Ticket update: A limited number of tickets for the USC game are on sale to the general public. More may become available tomorrow after student sales end today.

Little Leaguers honored: The Cal Ripken World Series champion Oahu All-Stars will be honored prior to kickoff of Saturday's game. The Ewa Beach team that won the Little League World Series on Sunday will be recognized at halftime.

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