USC's Perry Going Out With Spirit Intact : College football: Converted quarterback is a backup safety in his senior season, but maintains his position as one of the Trojans' leaders.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was no way this could have happened.

Once, Reggie Perry thought that he would be a collegiate superstar at USC, then sail into the NFL.

Five years ago, he was one of the most highly recruited high school players in Texas. Then, dreams were easy.

But the dreams have long since crashed. If he hurts inside, the senior backup safety hides the pain well. The smile is just as quick as it was when he was a redshirt freshman.

In practices and games, No. 16 stands on the sideline more than he plays. His quarterback career ended last year, when he asked to be switched to defense.

Yet in the home stretch of his final season at USC, he stands and waits to play.

He's no longer considered an NFL prospect, not after washing out as a quarterback and failing to start regularly as a senior safety.

But Perry, USC coaches and players say, is going out with his character and leadership intact, his spirit unbroken. And his future, they say, is in good hands--his.

Coach John Robinson was asked to assess the case of Perry, who has two regular-season games left in his college career.

After a long pause, he said: "Reggie Perry is a wonderful man. He's one of the team's real leaders, even though he hasn't had a lot of playing time. No one on this team is more respected than he is.

"If he just had one more year, I think he'd be a starter next year for us, but too many things conspired against him this year."

Perry, who asked the newly rehired Robinson last January if he could move to defense, would have been the No. 3 quarterback.

He had slightly better prospects at safety when the Trojans opened training camp last August. But circumstances again worked against him.

Even though the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Perry has played parts of eight games, and played well, returnees Jason Oliver and Mike Salmon, both seniors, have been the starters.

However, Salmon injured his Achilles' tendon last Saturday against Stanford, and his status for Saturday's game at Washington wasn't clear Tuesday.

Perry talked easily about what might have been, about how childhood dreams faded and how new goals have formed.

"Obviously, I wish I could have played a lot more this season, but it just didn't work out for me," he said.

"Early in the season, I was optimistic I'd play a lot. But as it winds down, it doesn't look good. But the team is playing well right now, and that's the main thing.

"I enjoy helping the younger players at my position, like Sammy Knight (a freshman safety from Riverside).

"Sammy's a great athlete and a great competitor. He's going to be a great player. So is Irwin Lincoln (sophomore cornerback).

"If I see something in practice that a young defensive back should do, I tell them. Sometimes maybe it's something I can't do myself, but I can see it, so I tell them. It's my responsibility, as a fifth-year senior."

A natural for a coaching career, right?

Nope. Perry has other plans.

He is scheduled to graduate with a degree in marketing after this semester.

"I've worked on a lot of mythical marketing projects in classes, and I enjoy that," he said. "I think I can be very good at that."

The hopes he once held for an NFL career have almost completely faded, although he says he might write some letters to NFL teams.

"I've thought about the NFL, but I'm not real hopeful," he said.

"Someone would have to bring me to a camp as a free-agent guy. I'm not hopeful. Really, I'm just pointing to these last two college games, hoping I can help the team out somehow.

"I'm going to stay in school one more semester, take a couple more sociology classes, and look for a marketing job at the same time."

His position coach, Keith Burns, says Perry hasn't once complained about his football career.

"He's a class act," Burns said.

"It would've been so easy for him to tell us: 'Hey, I've been jerked around here for five years and I'm sick of it . . . ' He could've made excuses, pointed fingers (but) he's never once complained to us. In fact, he's done just the opposite.

"Reggie is going to be a big success out there, and he won't need football. He's one of these guys who'll come back here one day in a big, nice car and give a lot of money to the university."

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