'06 NFL Draft Interview: Matt Leinart
By Jeff Fuqua
Posted March 21st, 2006
Between now and draft day, goTitans.com will do an interview on the candidates most likely to be chosen by the Tennessee Titans with the third pick of the 2006 NFL Draft. Our second interview is with Todd Harmonson of the Orange County Register. Harmonson has covered USC Trojan football the past six seasons and has known Matt Leinart since he arrived at training camp his freshman season in August 2001.
Despite putting up some of the most impressive numbers in college history, Leinart's stock appears to have slipped since the Rose Bowl. Why do you feel this has happened?
It seems that there has been less of a question about Leinart than therehas been a flavor-of-the-week fascination with other players, especially Jay Cutler. Put simply, Leinart hasnít worked out for anybody yet and wonít until April 2. If his stock actually slips after that, then he should be concerned. But certainly not before.
Among the comments mentioned concerning Leinart's numbers at Southern Cal is that they were inflated due to the superior talent surrounding him. Do you feel such comments are justified?
Of course, and Leinart would be the first to say that his numbers were enhanced significantly by both the talent and the system at USC. But, and this is just as important to note, everyone around Leinart would insist that the other players and the system wouldnít have been the same without him as USCís quarterback the past three seasons.
What do you feel are Leinart's strengths? Weaknesses?
Heís a winner. Ignore all his tools -- and he has plenty -- and focus on what matters the most in football. Every teammate trusted him to lead USC, and he repeatedly delivered when the Trojans needed him. And, if there had been a little more time on the clock in the Rose Bowl after Texasí final touchdown, he probably would have done it again. His other obvious strength is his ability to master his offense and read what opposing defenses will give him. Focusing on these strengths makes it seem as if he doesnít have physical gifts, but thatís a mistaken perception. He has a strong arm, throws an extremely catchable ball, an uncanny pocket awareness and the toughness to take a hit.
Leinart has far fewer weaknesses. He certainly could be more consistent on his deep balls, but he has the strength to throw them. Heís not someone for whom designed runs should be called, though heís a far better athlete than most would guess.
Do you feel Leinart should have entered the NFL last year after winning the National Championship and the Heisman Trophy?
It once seemed like no-brainer move for him to leave early, but then he explained that what he wanted most was to enjoy his college experience as much as possible. And itís his life. He also would have had to answer doubters about his elbow a year ago, but he solved that through surgery and was strong as a senior. Some people now think he wasted an opportunity because he didnít win a third national championship or a second Heisman Trophy, but those things and the money werenít as important to Leinart as enjoying something he never would be able to experience again.
Among comments of Leinart is that he lacks arm strength most NFL teams covet. Do you feel this is accurate? If so, are there certain passes Leinart does not throw well?
The knock on Leinartís arm strength grew during a season when he played with tendinitis in his elbow, but surgery last year helped that immensely. As I said before, he could be more consistent on the deep ball, but he can make all the throws. He doesnít have the cannon of a Carson Palmer or John Elway, but he makes up for that by making the right decision faster than most quarterbacks.
Some have said Leinart compares to Tom Brady in his leadership skills and managing an offense. Do you feel the comparison is accurate?
There probably isnít a more accurate comparison available. Someone always will find fault with their abilities, especially when compared some quarterbacks who have every physical tool, but their leadership is unquestioned. Teammates put their faith in them because they are winners. They have a presence in the huddle that sends the message that everything will be fine.
Do you feel the transition from the college game to the pros would be easier for Leinart if he was to be drafted by the Titans and played in a similar offensive system he did at USC?
Leinart is smart enough to adapt to whatever offense he plays in, but, sure, the transition would be easier if he knew some of the system already. Itís likely that the same terminology would be used, and his recognition of what the Titans are doing would be quicker than with another team. But itís not vital that the system is the same.
What do you know about the relationship between Leinart and Titans Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow? Has that relationship continued since Chow accepted the job with the Titans? Would Leinart have stayed at USC if he'd known Chow was going to leave?
Their relationship was strong while Chow was at USC, but I donít know if they kept in touch after he left for the Titans. Leinart said they used to spend a lot of time simply talking, and the subject often was not football. He spent four years learning under Norm and developed a bond that likely would remain strong even after a year apart.
I think he wouldíve like to know that Norm was leaving, but the key was that Pete Carroll brought in Steve Sarkisian to replace him. Leinartís relationship with Sarkisian also is extremely strong, so he was relieved to have him there after Chow left for the Titans.
Do you feel Leinart would be as successful running the Chow offense at the pro level as he was at Southern Cal?
I think Leinart will be successful running whatever offense he is asked to run, unless, of course, someone decides to put in the option in the NFL.
Should Leinart's past surgeries injuries impact his pro career?
Are you asking about his high school shoulder surgery? That should impact anybody who would want him to pitch nine innings but not anybody who wants him to play quarterback. His elbow tendinitis at USC should be more of a concern, but he recovered from that well.
Do you think Leinart should have done more at the Combine?
When youíre in his position, thereís no reason to do anything at the
Combine. He talked, took the Wonderlic and went home to train for his workout at USC on April. 2.
What perception of Leinart do you think will change after the Trojans Pro Day on April 2nd?
Thereís no way to know this without knowing how he will do. Those around him have said that heíll shock some critics with what heís able to do that day. Weíll see. Leinartís a gamer, and it would be surprising if he didnít perform well that day.
Do you feel Leinart would need a season to learn and adjust to the pro game as Carson Palmer did or could he start right away?
I think any quarterback could use a season to learn the offense and adjust to the pro game. If nothing else, the speed of the game is so different that they all need some time to adapt. Could Leinart handle playing as a rookie? Sure. Is that the best move for him or anybody else. Not likely.
Reports are Leinart wants to play for the Jets. Are these accurate and has he made any reference to the possibility of playing for the Titans and Norm Chow?
More than anything, Leinart has tried to keep things in perspective and not deal with the daily fluctuations happen on every prognosticatorís draft board. He says heís fine playing wherever heís drafted. Does he have preferences? Who doesnít? But he has been smart by avoiding saying much publicly about one team over any other.
Where do you predict he'll be taken in the draft now that New Orleans has signed Drew Brees?
This is purely a guess, but my money would be on second after New Orleans trades the pick. But first or third wouldnít shock me either.
What do you see as far as the amount of success Leinart will have in the NFL?
Of course, it depends so much on whoís around him and his ability to avoid devastating injuries. He has the talent and intelligence to thrive and, more important, that knack for winning that can separate him from other quarterbacks.
If you were to make the pick, would you take Leinart over Vince Young and Jay Cutler?
In a heartbeat. Young is a sensational talent but has too many things that concern teams -- his throwing motion, his tendency to take off running before going through his progressions and his lack of experience playing under center. Cutler has wowed some analysts with his physical tools, but there is concern with his size and, more important, teamís lack of success with him at quarterback. Teams have minor concerns with Leinart, but not about what he can do on the field.
What is something which might surprise Titans fans to know about Leinart that they might not have heard?
When Iíve seen him recently, he still was riding around in his white Ford Ranger, not some new sports car. Oh, and he also considers himself to be quite the basketball player, especially with a strong three-point game.
Todd Harmonson has covered college football and basketball for the Orange County Register since 2000 after previously covering the NFL. He covered the Rams-Titans Super Bowl and the ďMusic City Miracle,Ē watching the latter unfold from the sideline, directly in line with where Kevin Dyson caught Frank Wycheckís lateral.
His work with the Orange County Register can be found here.