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QB Leinart Opts to Return To USC

By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 15, 2005; Page D01

Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, who has led Southern California's football team to back-to-back national championships, will attempt to lead the Trojans to an unprecedented trifecta next season after announcing yesterday that he will return to school for his senior year.

The return of Leinart, who probably would have been one of the top five players selected in April's NFL draft, all but ensures that the Trojans will be ranked No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press top 25 poll. That is where Southern California ended the 2003 season and started and finished this past season after crushing No. 2 Oklahoma, 55-19, in the Orange Bowl. Since 1936, no team has finished No. 1 in the AP poll in three consecutive seasons. The Trojans will take a 22-game winning streak into their Sept. 3 season opener at Hawaii.

Southern Cal quarterback Matt Leinart holds up the trophy after beating Oklahoma, 55-19, in the Orange Bowl. Leinart said Friday he will return to USC for another season. (Wilfredo Lee - AP)

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"I realized the opportunity right now to support my family by going to the NFL early, but to me I think college football and this whole atmosphere here and being with my fans and my teammates . . . is ultimately more satisfying and will make me happier than any amount of money could make someone happy," Leinart said during a news conference in Los Angeles yesterday.

Leinart, from Santa Ana, Calif., will attempt to become the first player since Ohio State running back Archie Griffin in 1974-75 to win the Heisman Trophy in consecutive seasons. This past season, Leinart threw for 3,322 yards and 33 touchdowns with six interceptions, despite losing star wide receiver Mike Williams, who was ruled ineligible to play after entering his name in last year's NFL draft.

Since replacing 2002 Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer as Southern California's starting quarterback, Leinart has a 25-1 record, leading the Trojans to a perfect 13-0 mark this past season. Leinart's 6,878 career passing yards rank fourth at Southern Cal, and his 71 touchdown passes rank second, one behind Palmer.

Leinart, at 6 feet 5 and 225 pounds, probably would have been considered the top quarterback prospect if he had made himself available for the draft -- ahead of Utah's Alex Smith, California's Aaron Rodgers, Auburn's Jason Campbell, Akron's Charlie Frye and Purdue's Kyle Orton. It was believed that the San Francisco 49ers, who have the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, were already eyeing Leinart to upgrade their quarterback rotation of Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett.

"I feel we have done all we could to give him all the information, to give him both sides," said Trojans Coach Pete Carroll, a former NFL coach who declined to interview for the 49ers' coaching vacancy.

At least one NFL executive was second-guessing Leinart's decision. The No. 1 pick in last year's draft, former Mississippi quarterback Eli Manning, signed a signed a six-year, $45 million contract with the New York Giants that included $20 million in bonus money and $9 million in incentives that could push the deal's overall value to $54 million.

"To me, it's a no-brainer to come out early if you're going to be one of the top 10 guys picked," said the NFL executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be viewed as influencing Leinart's decision. "He'd probably be number one. Now, would that change in a year? Probably not. But you just never know. Why risk it? There's too much money at stake."

The left-handed Leinart isn't the first high-profile college quarterback who was ensured of NFL riches who returned to school for one more season. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, named the league's most valuable player this season after throwing an NFL-record 49 touchdown passes, most likely would have been the No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft, but returned to Tennessee for his senior season. He was drafted No. 1 by the Colts in the 1998 draft.

Oklahoma quarterback Jason White, the 2003 Heisman Trophy winner, also returned to school but probably would have been selected in the later rounds of the draft, if he was picked at all.

"This was the toughest decision of my life," Leinart said. "The money is not important to me. I realize the opportunities. My teammates and being here is more important to me right now. . . . This is the greatest time of my life, being in L.A. I'm close to home. My family, my friends, everyone's here. I think that alone is enough motivation for me to come back."

Meantime, Southern California junior linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who led the Trojans with 104 tackles, announced he will enter the NFL draft, and punter Tom Malone said he will return to USC. College underclassmen have until today to declare for the NFL draft; those who declare have until Jan. 19 to withdraw their names.

Staff writer Mark Maske contributed to this report.

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