Trojans' Perry Ready to Face Big Challenge

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was his ability to audibilize, changing his mind quickly when he saw things he didn't like, that enabled Reggie Perry to broaden his musical tastes.

An avid fan of rap--his current favorite is Ice Cube--Perry was introduced to classical music and opera by public television.

"I had the remote control in my hand 24 hours a day, so I would stop and listen," he said. "I didn't know what they were saying (in the operas), but they had subtitles underneath. . . .

"I just find it relaxing. I like the way it flows. It's very interesting. The music can really pick you up and it can bring you down. It really plays with your emotions."

USC fans hope that Perry, who will be the Trojans' starting quarterback Monday when they open the season against Memphis State at the Coliseum, will be as adaptable on the football field.

A veteran only in the broadest sense of the word--his college "experience" consists of three snaps last season in a 56-7 victory over Oregon State and he has yet to attempt a pass for USC--the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Perry wasn't expected to be a starter this soon.

But when Todd Marinovich made himself available for the NFL draft last spring, giving up his final two years of collegiate eligibility, Perry was the only recruited quarterback left on the roster.

During the spring and summer, the sophomore from Denison, Tex., withstood a halfhearted challenge by Curtis Conway, who grudgingly moved from flanker, and now Perry is at the helm of the Trojans' offense.

Is he ready?

He seems to think so, and so do his teammates and coaches.

It is doubtful that Perry will make anyone forget Marinovich, who climbed to No. 2 on USC's all-time passing list in only two seasons, but he might remind them of Rodney Peete, who also wore No. 16.

Like Peete, who is the Trojans' all-time passing leader, Perry is said to be equally skilled at passing and running, which is a polite way of saying that he is not expected to fill the air with passes.

Although he was ranked as the state's No. 1 quarterback by Texas Football magazine entering his senior year at Denison High--UCLA-bound Tommy Maddox of L.B. Bell High in Hurst, Tex., was ranked No. 4 that summer--Perry was projected by many recruiters as a safety.

USC didn't recruit him until his high school coach, Marty Criswell, contacted the Trojans.

At Denison, Perry ran the same type of ground-oriented offense that he will run at USC. "There's not a nickel's worth of difference," Criswell said.

In Criswell's offense, the tailback was the featured performer, and Perry's statistics in three seasons as the starting quarterback were hardly remarkable.

Completing 44.4% of his 331 passes--in his injury-shortened senior season, he completed only 48 of 117 passes--Perry threw for 2,100 yards and 14 touchdowns, with 18 interceptions, and ran for 1,187 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 4.4 yards.

Still, he earned a reputation as a leader.

"He's totally unselfish, which must be a breath of fresh air out there," said Criswell, alluding to Marinovich's battles with the coaching staff last season. "He's a guy who, if he never threw a pass and you won the game, that was fine. And if he never carried the ball and we won, that was fine.

"But if he passed for 200 yards and ran for 150 yards and we lost, that was a bad deal. He didn't give a flip about himself."

The youngest of four children, Perry and his two brothers and a sister were raised by their mother, Gladys, who made ends meet by caring for an elderly couple.

"He loved sports from the time he was about 6," Gladys Perry said of her youngest son. "His older brothers worked at the Boys Club and he started there, playing baseball and football, and then basketball. He played all the sports, up to about his junior year."

Perry, who never met his father, said of his brothers, Brian and Stanley: "They got me into sports before I really had a choice."

In high school, Perry competed in football, baseball, basketball and track and field, carried a 3.6 grade-point average and was president of Denison's chapter of the National Honor Society.

He had hoped to be pursued by Notre Dame, which showed an interest, but after suffering a broken right foot in the eighth game of his senior season, Perry never heard from the Irish again. According to Criswell, a Notre Dame assistant told him last year that the Irish made a mistake by passing on Perry.

"We don't have many three-year starters around here," Criswell said. "Not many sophomores can play the caliber of football that we play around here. But Reggie, shoot, he stepped right in. He was fantastic. I'm convinced that if he hadn't been injured his senior year, we would have won the state championship."

Criswell said that many recruiters mislabeled Perry.

"A lot of people saw what he looked like and thought, 'He's just an option quarterback,' " Criswell said. "That's not true at all. To me, he's the complete quarterback. He was a good passer for us."

Still regarded as a major prospect despite his injury--he returned to play in the last two games of his senior season--Perry was asked one day by Criswell if he was interested in any schools that hadn't yet contacted him.

"Southern Cal," said Perry, who has an aunt and uncle who live in South-Central Los Angeles.

Criswell made a call to USC, and Chris Allen, the Trojans' defensive coordinator, got back to him immediately. The next day, Criswell said, Allen was in Denison.

Allen returned from Denison with a stack of videotapes to be evaluated by Chuck Stobart, who at the time was the Trojans' offensive coordinator.

"I was very, very impressed with him," said Stobart, who will be on the opposite sideline when Perry makes his debut, having been hired two years ago as head coach at Memphis State. "I thought he could do all the things we were asking of (Peete). All those particulars you look for in a quarterback were there, present and available."

The Trojans offered a scholarship, and Perry, after visiting Nebraska and USC, made an unwritten commitment to USC, canceling trips to Texas, Arizona and Texas Tech.

"It's one of those schools you hear about when you're growing up," Perry said of USC. "I remember watching them on TV, falling in love with the band."

Perry spent two years as a backup to Marinovich, but he said his greatest influence during his time on the sideline was Pat O'Hara, the former Trojan quarterback who suffered a broken leg on the eve of the 1989 season, opening the way for Marinovich.

O'Hara, he said, taught him how to carry himself as a quarterback.

"I always try to keep an upbeat attitude," Perry said. "I smile so much that if I'm not smiling, the team will ask me what's wrong."

It irks him, though, when outsiders assume, because of his background, that he is not a skilled passer. He enjoys running the ball--"I'm a big, physical quarterback and I like to stick my nose in the middle of things," he said--but he has worked hard to improve his passing touch and accuracy.

"I think I'm a quarterback that can do it all," he said. "It just so happened that in our offense back home, I ran a lot. I think I'm a quarterback that can pass the ball and run the ball equally well.

"I don't want to be labeled as just a throwing quarterback or just a running quarterback."

And he shouldn't be, according to USC Coach Larry Smith.

"His passing is probably the most improved phase of his game since last spring," Smith said. "I feel very comfortable with Reggie Perry throwing the football. I believe he could throw 20 to 25 touchdown passes and complete 60% of his passes."

However, Smith added, if USC's running game is as productive as the Trojans hope, Perry won't be asked to throw all that much.

That would be OK with Perry.

"I just want to win," he said.

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