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Leinart Nearing a Decision

Times Staff Writer

USC quarterback Matt Leinart said Monday that he would probably announce Thursday whether he would declare for the NFL draft or return for his final year of eligibility.

Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu and punter Tom Malone also are expected to say Thursday whether they will turn pro or return as the Trojans try to win an unprecedented third consecutive national title.

Friday is the deadline for applying for the draft.

All three players were on campus Monday for the start of spring semester classes. The team met briefly in the afternoon to pick up books and discuss the schedule through spring, but many players did not attend because of classes.

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Coach Pete Carroll was in Hawaii and was not scheduled to return until today, according to Mark Jackson, USC’s director of football operations.

Leinart, who would be a fifth-year senior next season, won the Heisman Trophy and helped lead USC to its second straight national title by throwing five touchdown passes in a 55-19 Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma. He would be a certain first-round draft pick and could be among the first five or 10 players chosen.

Tatupu, the son of former USC fullback Mosi Tatupu, also would be a fifth-year senior. He had a game-high 12 tackles against Oklahoma.

Tatupu is not regarded as a first- or second-round pick, but said he was “50-50" about returning.

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“My dad wants me to come back,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to tell him no.”

Malone would be a fourth-year senior next season. He was an All-American in 2003.

“Everything is looking good as far as coming back, but I still haven’t decided,” he said.

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Offensive tackle Winston Justice and receiver Whitney Lewis returned to classes and said they were eager to regain their positions.

Justice, who started as a freshman and sophomore, was suspended from school for two semesters last March after he was arrested for flashing a replica firearm during an incident near campus. He pleaded no contest in June to one misdemeanor count and was sentenced to 60 days of electronic monitoring and three years’ probation.

Justice, who will be a fourth-year junior, is regarded as a potential All-America candidate but will compete with Taitusi Lutui to regain his spot at right tackle.

Justice said he had strongly considered turning pro.

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“I was really close but I didn’t want to leave the university the way I did,” he said. “I didn’t want to go without accomplishing some things I needed to.”

Lewis had moved to the top of the depth chart during spring practice but was declared academically ineligible before training camp. He said he had been working out and that he had matured.

“You kind of learn,” he said. “I know what’s expected.”

Running back Chauncey Washington also was academically ineligible, but continued to take classes at USC.

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“I wish spring ball was right now,” he said.

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Tight end Fred Davis said he was disappointed that he was not able to join the Trojans in Miami for the Orange Bowl and had learned a few lessons about responsibility.

Davis was not allowed to travel with the team to the bowl championship series title game because he returned late from Ohio after a Christmas break and missed a team meeting and practice. Davis also had returned late on several occasions during the season.

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“It’s a new year,” he said. “I know all the stuff I did as a freshman, don’t do again. My freshman year was a learning stage.”

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After running back LenDale White had rushed for 118 yards and scored twice in the Orange Bowl, his cousin, Detroit Piston guard Chauncey Billups, told the Detroit Free Press, “My man is putting pressure on me now. He’s got two rings now and I’m one behind, so I’ve got to catch back up.”

White said Monday that he had spoken with Billups.

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“I told him he has to go back-to-back now,” White said. “That’s how we do it.”

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Linebacker Kevin Ellison of Redondo Union and safety Michael Coleman of San Bernardino Arroyo Valley completed high school a semester early and are enrolled in spring semester classes.

Defensive lineman Thomas Herring, who originally signed last February but was not certified by the NCAA clearinghouse, also is back.

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Receiver Derrick Jones and tight end Eugene Germany, other members of last year’s recruiting class, will not return this semester because of clearinghouse issues, sources said.

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Ashton White, son of the Trojans’ 1979 Heisman Trophy winner Charles White, is enrolled in classes and said he would participate in spring practice with the Trojans.

He was the Serra League player of the year for Santa Margarita High in 2001 but missed his senior season because of a knee injury. He said he would try to play safety.

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Fullback Brandon Hancock said he has recovered from knee surgery that forced him to miss last season and would be ready for spring practice.... Running back Hershel Dennis said he would have knee surgery next week. Dennis suffered torn ligaments in his left knee on Dec. 16.

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Offensive lineman Chilo Rachal is wearing a protective boot on his right foot after having a surgical pin removed when the Trojans returned from the Orange Bowl. Rachal said the pin was inserted when he broke his foot in high school.... The Trojans begin their off-season conditioning program a week from today.

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