Palmer's maturity evident both on and off the field

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

MIAMI (AP) -- Carson Palmer arrived at Southern California as an 18-year-old punk and will leave as a 23-year-old punk. Just ask him.

Still, he and his coach really believe the Heisman Trophy winner is a lot more mature.

"I think I became a better player mentally," said Palmer, who leads the fifth-ranked Trojans against No. 3 Iowa in Thursday's Orange Bowl. "I learned a lot from all the mistakes I made, and learned simply from playing so many games."

Palmer came to USC amid great expectations in 1998, but for much of his career he struggled, along with his team. He lived up to his potential this year, however. He threw for 3,639 yards and 32 touchdowns as the Trojans went 10-2, after three seasons of failing to finish above .500.

Before leading USC past rival UCLA last month, the senior quarterback said he arrived on campus "as a punk high school kid, and now I'm a punk college kid." He obviously has come of age, which was evident in his composure and humility when receiving the Heisman on Dec. 14.

"He was so remarkably poised and so beautifully in command and so humble," coach Pete Carroll said. "He handled it exactly the way you would hope. For those who don't know him, that's just the way he is."

The coach admires the way Palmer reacted to both the bad times and the good at USC.

"I think that Carson has matured in a very special way," he said. "He had been a golden boy of sorts since high school who never really got to realize the fun of it his first few years at USC, under the spotlight of a tremendous media following.

"He didn't meet the expectations until this year, when he exceeded them. It's a great success story."

Palmer's breakout season came as he and his teammates, in their second season under Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow, finally got comfortable in the offense. The scheme also was tailored to fit the skills of the quarterback and the other offensive players.

"Our offense really kind of came together," Palmer said. "We figured the offense out and started to master it at the end of the year."

Carroll said the USC coaches finally matched the right offense to Palmer and his teammates.

"I think Carson was a great player last year and the year before that, but the system didn't fit just right until we found the right makeup," Carroll said. "If we had done it a year ago, Carson would have been the same player then that he was this year -- and this season he was the best player in America."

In the Trojans' last six regular-season games, they scored fewer than 40 points just once -- in a 34-13 win over Arizona State. They beat rivals UCLA 52-21 and Notre Dame 44-13. Palmer threw for four touchdowns and 425 yards against the Irish, the most passing yards ever against them.

When he accepted the Heisman, Palmer said, "I think it was the Notre Dame game. If anyone else was playing in that game, maybe they would have gotten the trophy."

Carroll, who formerly coached the New York Jets and New England Patriots, believes the 6-foot-6, 230-pound Palmer is "well-equipped and ready" to make the transition to the NFL.

"It's very, very difficult to be an NFL quarterback, and it's very difficult to be a high draft pick, with all the expectations that go along with that," the coach said. "Almost all rookie quarterbacks get pounded, and they look like they'll never be able to find their stride.

"But he's already been through all that at USC, and you couldn't expect to get a guy who's more prepared for the rigors of the NFL."

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