Sarkisian: Nice head start but early arrival no guarantee

LOS ANGELES -- With the benefit of four years of hindsight, USC quarterback John David Booty can see the folly.

Never mind that the Trojans were coming off an Orange Bowl victory and a top-five finish. Never mind that the guy who won the job, a third-year sophomore by the name of Matt Leinart, would go on to win a Heisman Trophy. Or that another quarterback, Matt Cassel, would be drafted off the USC bench by the New England Patriots in 2005.

When Booty arrived in Los Angeles in January 2003 from Shreveport, La., fresh from the recruiting wars, he believed he could play right away.

"Everybody's telling you how good you are and how you're going to play right away and do this and that," Booty said. "I was the same way. I wanted to come in and play. But looking back on it now, I don't think that would have been the best thing for me. I knew I could play at this level, but I wasn't ready to do it."

On the care and feeding of the high school senior who arrives in January: If the player has enough maturity to walk into a locker room full of strangers and get along, if the player can think about the senior prom he's missing without dissolving into a puddle of tears, and if he can survive without being overwhelmed by, well, a college-level football curriculum, it just might be right for him.

Booty did play as a freshman. He got into four blowouts, completing 7 of 14 passes for 90 yards. Suffice it to say he was so ready as a freshman in 2003 that the Trojans coaches redshirted him in 2004.

USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said the Trojans staff does not encourage freshmen to enroll in January. Instead, they do encourage the local signees, such as current freshman Aaron Corp of Villa Park, Calif., to come to every spring practice and every spring quarterback meeting.

"They don't get the physical reps," Sarkisian said, "but they got an awful lot of the mental reps. That got them a little bit of a head start into the summer as they enroll in summer school and they're throwing out on their own with the other guys. By the time that fall camp comes around, they've got a little idea of what's happening."

All of that for "a little idea" of the Trojans' offense. If all that does is provide a little idea, why not encourage quarterbacks to enroll in January?

"I think your senior year of high school, that time of your life, enjoy it," Sarkisian said. "Go to prom. Go to winter formal. Play baseball, whatever you do. If the kid's got his heart set on [enrolling early], and he wants to do it, we'd love to have him. … I think we've got a pretty good system of getting our guys in here and learning our system and pushing it on them as quickly as possible. But we also have a nice luxury of [not having] to force these kids to play that early. They get a chance to watch All-Pac-10, Heisman-type players in front of them and learn from them, on and off the field."

Handling life off the field in Los Angeles can make a difference on the field.

"It's not just throwing curl routes when you play quarterback at USC," Sarkisian said. "There's a lot of things that come on with this deal -- some really good, some really bad. Wherever you go, be ready for people to take pictures of you and be on the Internet. You're in a pretty high-profile position and you've got to learn how to handle yourself."

In the end, Sarkisian said, he believes there is an advantage to coming early, but only a small one.

"It is a nice head start for him. But I don't think that's going to be the ultimate in making that kid a great player or not," he said. "Is it the overriding advantage to playing early? I can't say that it is. Ultimately, in the end, the best guys are going to play. I don't think being here early is that big of a difference."

Sarkisian's advice surely will fall on deaf ears. What high school freshman, ego buffed by recruiters, believes he isn't the exception to the rule?

"Some guys can't understand that," Booty said. "They just think they're all that, and that they are better than everybody else, when really there are so many parts of their game that they need to get better at before they can really be successful at this level."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.