Back at Back : USC's Barnum Returns to Offense After 2 Lean Years as a Cornerback

TIMES STAFF WRITER

USC tailback Terry Barnum weaves through the line and breaks free for a long touchdown run.

His father, Usher, happens to be standing behind that end zone, smiling from ear to ear.

Slowly, they walk toward each other.

"It's been a long time, hasn't it?" Usher asks.

"Yup," his son answers. "Too long."

It was April, and it was only spring practice. But to Barnum, the former Alemany High standout, it seemed like a lifetime since he even carried a football, much less score a touchdown.

In the beginning, Barnum was just like every other kid who grew up dreaming of playing football for USC.

He wanted to be the impact player, the All-American, the Heisman Trophy winner.

In other words, Barnum wanted to be the tailback.

What else could you be at Tailback U? Years of watching Charles White, Marcus Allen and Student Body Right seduced him. Barnum even committed to USC early, before his senior season at Alemany High in 1991.

He knew where he wanted to go and he didn't want to waste time getting there.

But only now has he finally gotten a real chance to make his childhood dream a reality.

After spending his first two years at USC as a reserve cornerback, Barnum, a junior, is No. 3 on the depth chart at tailback as preseason drills began Saturday.

It has been a long and frustrating struggle for Barnum, who was converted back to tailback after talking with USC Coach John Robinson before spring drills began last April.

Robinson, who has vowed to improve on the Trojans' paltry rushing totals of last season, was impressed by Barnum during the spring.

The 5-foot-10, 180-pounder might even play fullback this season.

"We gave him a shot and he's done very well," Robinson said. "He's an excellent receiver, extremely smart, smart in the classroom . . . just a smart man. So we may use him (this season)."

Barnum should have known what he was in for when he was switched to defense during his first practice as a Trojan in 1992.

To him, defense was always an afterthought on the football field. But he didn't mind, as long as he got a chance to play.

So instead of going for the Heisman Trophy, Barnum thought, "Fine, I'll be the next Thorpe (an award given annually to the best defensive back in college football) winner."

During that first practice, reality set in for the eager freshman when Barnum was run over by Curtis Conway, now a wide receiver for the Chicago Bears. He quickly realized it was not going to be as easy as he first thought.

In his first two years, Barnum was on the field for four defensive plays.

His only significant playing time came on special teams, appearing in 11 games as a sophomore and making six tackles.

The odds were stacked against Barnum from the outset. In front of him at cornerback last season were Jason Sehorn and Jason Oliver.

Sehorn went on to be drafted by the New York Giants in the second round, and Oliver already had 10 starts under his belt in 1992.

"I was having to learn to play defense on the college level, which was going to take some time," he said. "It's not the easiest place to learn to play defense."

As times became tougher, Barnum leaned on his family, especially his father, for support. After every practice, no matter how Barnum did, he could always find comfort when he saw Usher waiting for him on the sidelines.

"He's been a big part of me getting through this," Barnum said.

But when the frustration of not playing mounted, it got to the point where Barnum didn't want to talk about football, especially his playing time.

"It hurt too bad," Usher said. "The most difficult part of it was that he was mentally and physically ready to play every week. Doing that 13 times a season (and not playing) is a difficult thing to do."

Barnum's frustrations came to a head whenever he saw former high school opponents on television get playing time at other schools.

"It was tough because it started to play on his confidence and talent," said Barnum's girlfriend, Brenda Quintana.

"He started to think he wasn't NCAA Division I material. He was always wanting to play so badly, but he was always standing on the sidelines."

Said Usher: "I think the frustration of not playing tailback was not as big as not playing at all. That was pretty much the low point in his life."

Barnum figured the only way he was going to get a chance to play again was if he went back to offense, where he is more comfortable. Robinson relented, and Barnum was impressive.

"He's got a tremendous game," White said. "His skills were a little rusty, but from the spring to what I've seen in the first day of practice, he's got some stuff."

White should know. The former San Fernando High football and track standout was the 1979 Heisman Trophy winner.

"He's a bright guy," added White, USC's running backs coach since last season. "He's just had to bring his old shoes out of the closet. It'll come with time."

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