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Leinart Calls for a Delay

Times Staff Writer

USC quarterback Matt Leinart called an audible Thursday and put off until today his decision about whether to turn pro or return to USC for a final season of eligibility.

Leinart, who has until Saturday to declare for the NFL draft, had said he would announce his decision Thursday. But after working out in the weight room and being sized for a national-championship ring, he said he would return to his family’s home in Santa Ana to mull his decision.

“I still have to talk to more people and gather more information,” Leinart said. “I plan to go to Orange County and just kind of gather my thoughts.”

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Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu and punter Tom Malone, also juniors, followed Leinart’s lead and said they would delay their decisions until today.

“They should take all the time they need,” Coach Pete Carroll said by phone.

Leinart, Tatupu and Malone are expected to be present for a news conference that has been scheduled for this afternoon. The news conference will be held about 90 minutes after the scheduled introduction of men’s basketball Coach Tim Floyd.

Leinart, the 2004 Heisman Trophy winner, capped the Trojans’ perfect season by passing for five touchdowns against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 4. Since then, Leinart and his family have attempted to glean information about his potential draft status. Carroll, offensive coordinator Norm Chow, NFL personnel directors, NFL players and agents have offered information and opinions.

On Wednesday, Leinart met with Carroll on campus and also spoke with Steve Sarkisian, the Oakland Raiders’ quarterbacks coach, who served in the same capacity at USC in 2002 and 2003.

Leinart is regarded as a certain first-round draft choice and a possible top-five pick. NFL scouting expert Gil Brandt, a former personnel director for the Dallas Cowboys, told The Times on Wednesday that he projected Leinart as the first player selected in the April 23 draft.

Still, Leinart’s father said Thursday that his son was struggling to decide whether to turn pro or return to help USC make a run at a third consecutive national championship.

“It’s tough because I sit next to him or across from him and you can see him processing the information and his brain is on overload,” Bob Leinart said.

Tatupu, the Trojans’ leading tackler the last two seasons, met briefly with linebacker coach Rocky Seto and graduate assistant Ken Norton Jr. on Thursday. Afterward, he reiterated that he was “leaning toward leaving, but there’s still a couple things I have to figure out.”

Tatupu said he would confer with Leinart and Malone before making a final decision.

“It’s not an easy decision, but it kind of helps when you know what your partners are doing,” he said.

Malone, an All-American in 2003, said he made up his mind Wednesday night but was in no hurry to announce his decision.

“Now, I just have more time to reevaluate the thing,” he said.

Several USC players said they expected Tatupu to leave, but they were not as certain about Leinart and Malone.

Linebacker Matt Grootegoed, who played with Leinart at Santa Ana Mater Dei High and was his roommate this season, said that with a potential multimillion-dollar signing bonus and contract awaiting the quarterback, the choice should be easy.

“I’m like, ‘Dude, take it and run.’ It’s obvious.’ ” Grootegoed said. “But he’s caught up in a tough decision.”

Reserve quarterback Billy Hart said he refrains from raising the topic with Leinart, “because everyone else does. The last thing he wants to hear from his friends is, ‘So, what are you going to do?’ ”

That question, however, was on the minds of USC students and employees Thursday.

“I care,” Mike Kollar, a sophomore from New Jersey, said as he walked his bike past the student union. “I think that if he comes back ... we could be the best team of all time.”

Leah Movessian, a graduate student from Los Angeles, said she was well aware of Leinart’s situation.

“For the sake of the school, I think it’s good if he comes back, but I do understand why he would want to leave,” Movessian said. “If he gets injured this next season, that’s going to [be bad] for him.”

Donna Brown, who has worked in USC’s transportation services department for eight years, said Leinart’s situation was the talk of the campus.

“I think he should stay here and do one more year ... then he’ll be ready for the NFL,” Brown said.

“Right now, he’s not ready. He’s good, but there’s definitely some more things he can learn here.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Out Early

College players who have announced they will leave school early for this year’s NFL draft (deadline for declarations is Saturday):

QUARTERBACKS

* Aaron Rodgers, California

* Alex Smith, Utah

* Walter Washington, Temple

RUNNING BACKS

* Ciatrick Fason, Florida

* Frank Gore, Miami

* Derrick Johnese, Northwestern State

* Ryan Moats, Louisiana Tech

* Vernand Morency, Oklahoma State

* Damien Nash, Missouri

* Eric Shelton, Louisville

WIDE RECEIVERS

* Chris Henry, West Virginia

* Dante Ridgeway, Ball State

* Roscoe Parrish, Miami

* Steve Savoy, Utah

* Troy Williamson, South Carolina

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

* Heath Miller, Virginia

* Chris Spencer, Mississippi

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

* Shawne Merriman, Maryland

LINEBACKERS

* Channing Crowder, Florida

* Rian Wallace, Temple

DEFENSIVE BACKS

* Brandon Browner, Oregon State

* Josh Bullocks, Nebraska

* Adam Jones, West Virginia

* Justin Miller, Clemson

* Ernest Shazor, Michigan

* Fabian Washington, Nebraska


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