New Leading Men

FAYETTEVILLE — Robert Johnson and John David Booty are enjoying the type of treatment that comes with being the starting quarterback at a big-time college football program.

Johnson admits his phone has been ringing more since he was named Arkansas' starter two weeks ago. Students have also approached him on campus and congratulated him. In some instances, they have thanked him, as well.

"I respect that, and it gives me confidence knowing that I have the fans behind me," Johnson said this week as he prepared for Saturday's season opener against No. 6 Southern California.

Like Johnson, Booty is quickly learning that there are advantages to being his team's starting quarterback.

Booty has been inundated with media interview requests, and the 6-foot-3, 210-pound junior posed alongside two USC offensive linemen for the cover of Sports Illustrated's college football preview issue.

But it wasn't that long ago that Johnson and Booty were just a pair of backup quarterbacks left to wonder when their chances of starting might come.

"John has played in a lot of games, and he's been in the system for three years," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "Unfortunately for him, he had to play behind Matt (Leinart) and he had to sit and wait."

And wait some more.

In his first three years at USC, Booty was overshadowed by Leinart, whose strong arm and good looks made him Hollywood's perfect leading man.

Leinart led the Trojans to a share of the national championship in 2003, won the title outright in 2004 and played for another one last season.

Meanwhile, Booty was relegated to a backup role, similar to the way Leinart waited his turn behind Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer.

"We went through this with Matt when he followed Carson, and it really helped us. It helped us for Matt to be around a player of that kind of stature and reputation," Carroll said. "... Well, so did John David as he watched Matt go through all of his stuff."

Before this season, the closest Booty came to starting for the Trojans was the spring of 2005 when he worked as the first-team quarterback while Leinart recovered from elbow surgery.

But the wait has finally ended. Booty will make his first start at 7:45 p.m. Saturday in a rather unique setting — on national TV in front of what is expected to be the largest crowd in Reynolds Razorback Stadium history.

"We're really confident in John David," USC wide receiver Steve Smith said. "He's been in the system for a while, and he just brings a lot of the same poise and characteristics that Leinart has. He has all the throwing tools that we can think of."

Johnson is already familiar with the pressure and high expectations that come with being a starting quarterback.

He started the first seven games last season as a sophomore, including Arkansas' embarrassing 70-17 loss at USC. But he struggled to move the ball downfield, and was benched over the final four games by relatively unknown freshman Casey Dick.

Johnson's confidence suffered as a result, and there was talk that the quarterback might change positions.

"At first, I was like, ‘Maybe this is not for me. Maybe quarterback isn't for me,'" Johnson said. "I thought that last year, but I stuck in and I got a lot of support from my friends (and) a lot of people on the team."

He's getting more support from the coaches, as well.

After watching the 6-foot-2, 216-pound junior make smarter decisions and more accurate passes in practice, Arkansas coach Houston Nutt decided last month to name Johnson the starter over freshman Mitch Mustain.

It came as a big relief for Johnson.

"I feel a lot (more) comfortable. It seems like the game is slowing down a lot," Johnson said. "I'm having fun, I'm doing what I'm capable of doing and trusting my teammates."

In other words, he's acting like a starting quarterback.

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