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A Fresh Start Under Palmer

Whatever it is, Carson Palmer has it.

You know it--that undefinable quality separating movie stars like Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio from actors who merely star in movies, super models like Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer from middle models, sometimes even winning politicians from losing ones.

You don’t have to have it to be a successful quarterback. Bart Starr had as much sizzle as Bob Dole and won a lot of games for the Green Bay Packers. Bob Griese was farther removed from Joe Namath than Miami is from Broadway and still is the only NFL quarterback of recent vintage to finish a season undefeated. But it helps.

USC Coach Paul Hackett no doubt saw it in Palmer during preseason workouts, the rest of us in the Trojans’ first game against Purdue. Some in the Coliseum stands, as well as the press box, were clamoring for Palmer to start as early as then, even before he had attended a class as a college freshman.

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His first professor knew better. Hackett brought Palmer along little by little each weekend, figuring both of them would know when he was ready.

Palmer was ready Saturday. One year to the day after he quarterbacked Rancho Santa Margarita High School to a 56-3 victory over Irvine in a Sea View League game, he started at the Coliseum in front of 62,276 fans against Washington in an important game for the bowl aspirations of both teams.

Asked to assess his performance, Palmer said he did “all right, nothing special.”

In fact, he did considerably better than that. His statistics were good--18 of 31 passes completed for 279 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions--but even more impressive was his command of the game. He led the Trojans to a 14-0 first-half lead that should have been even greater, maintained his poise after the Huskies rallied to within 14-10 in the third quarter and then closed out a 33-10 victory.

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He was hardly a one-man show. Chad Morton rushed for 110 yards, Billy Miller caught five passes for 109 and the defense intercepted five passes, two of which Antuan Simmons returned for fourth-quarter touchdowns.

Maybe they all would have played as well if sophomore Mike Van Raaphorst had remained the starter, but we’ll never know because Hackett already had decided after last week’s loss to Oregon that the Trojans’ future was with Palmer as the quarterback.

“Mike had eight starts,” Hackett said. “I told him I felt Carson deserved an opportunity to show what kind of leader he can be and what kind of a football player he is.”

When he told the team before the game, he said, “I didn’t worry about him [Palmer] at all. I worried about how our football team would respond to him.”

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The Trojans responded. They might not even be conscious of it, but there’s more spring in their step, more persistence in their blocks, more menace in their tackles when Palmer is the quarterback. That might not be fair to Van Raaphorst, but that’s the way it works.

Although Hackett can’t diagram it on a blackboard, he knows it when he sees it.

“His presence out there I’m delighted with,” Hackett said of Palmer. “His presence is the key.”

The radio station that broadcasts USC games, XTRA (690), reported rumors Saturday morning that Palmer would start. Until then, it was one of the best-kept secrets at USC in years, particularly considering that Hackett said he informed Van Raaphorst on Monday and Palmer on Tuesday night.

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Palmer said he told his father and no one else.

One of the first questions Hackett faced after the game was what took him so long.

He said he was influenced by conversations with two of his former quarterbacks, Paul McDonald and Elvis Grbac, who told him they couldn’t have imagined starting at quarterback as a true freshman.

“What you see and what we see are quite different,” Hackett said. “When you watch the development of a young person when he comes to USC as a student and a player, there are so many things involved.”

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With the wisdom of his 18 years, Palmer knew that Hackett was right.

“I’m sure people were questioning it,” he said. “But I wasn’t ready, you know. I wasn’t mentally ready all the way until this week. The offense is a lot more complex than people think.

“I’ve got a long, long way to go, especially with the West Coast offense.”

The last quarterback to start as a true freshman we heard talking like that here was Cade McNown, who has gone a long, long way with less natural ability than Palmer. McNown is another one who has it.

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It would be a disservice to Palmer at this point to compare him to McNown. But, with another start next week against Stanford and then a week off before the USC-UCLA game, Palmer should be even more ready then than he is now.

Whether he is ready for UCLA or not remains to be seen. Few are. But his presence as the starting quarterback undoubtedly has given long-languishing Trojan fans renewed hope that the Bruins will have to take down that banner from their practice field identifying themselves as “City Champions.”


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