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."