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THE WRITING ON (AND OFF) THE WALL THE LONELIEST TROJAN.

Byline: TOM HOFFARTH

Tom Malone, the accidental punter on USC's affluent championship football teams, bases his successes and failures one kick at a time.

He has no other choice. Once could be the only action he sees in an entire game.

Take Saturday against Arizona, when the 22-year-old senior was called upon just two times when the usual yard-shredding Trojans offense uncharacteristically stalled. More people saw him on the cover of the game-day program.

As far as Malone was concerned, two kicks were plenty.

Battling a right hip-flexor injury that seems to be aggravated on every leg swing he has taken since preseason camp, Malone didn't even know if he'd be healthy enough against the Wildcats in a game that many thought would be so one-sided that his absence could go unnoticed.

``It's really not too good right now,'' Malone admitted while slowly walking off the Coliseum field after USC's start-and-stall 42-21 victory. ``It didn't feel good all week and I didn't do anything at practice. I still need some time to heal.''

Time, of course, is all the Trojans' offense usually gives Malone during a game. Of the 41 contests that he has been asked to participate in since his 2002 freshman season, the two-time All-Pac-10 team member has had three or fewer punts in 22 of `em.

To make the NCAA's weekly statistical leader list, though, one has to average 3.6 punts a game. Even Malone, two units shy of graduating with a political science degree, can do the math. With 12 punts now this season for an average of about 43 yards, he'd easily crack the top 25.

It ain't enough.

Instead, Danny Baugher of this 2-3 Arizona squad has become the nation's statistical leader. Coming in at 49.1 yards a kick, Baugher's first two punts went for 54 yards and landed inside the 5-yard line. None of his six punts were returned by the ever-dangerous Reggie Bush, left to signal for a fair-catch on more than one occasion.

``He definitely did a great job for them,'' Malone said of Baugher. But when told about Baugher's place atop the nation's leaders, Malone shrugged.

``I've never been up on the stats,'' Malone said. ``The most important thing is how the team is doing.''

For the record, Malone led the nation in punting in 2003 as a sophomore with a 49.0 yards-per-kick average, which broke the school record by 3.4 yards. But since it was achieved in just 42 attempts - five shy of the requirements - he again didn't make the NCAA list.

By the time Malone finishes his time at USC, he could be the conference's all-time punter. His career average of 44.5 is one-tenth shy of the mark set by UCLA's Kirk Wilson during the 1950s.

And to think, this gig that got him to consider leaving school early for the NFL last April all sort of happened by mistake.

When he was a freshman playing receiver at Temescal Canyon High in Lake Elsinore, he had a bad practice and was getting yelled at by one of his coaches when he picked up a ball in frustration and kicked the bejesus out of it.

A punter was born. And a holder on place kicks as well, a role they found for him at USC to keep him focused on more than just his anti-shanking technique.

``If it wasn't for holding, I think I'd go insane,'' he said.

Otherwise, he accepts that it's his job to stand on the sidelines and wait for his team to fail. With USC, good luck.

``I mean, you've got to figure it'll all balance out,'' he says. ``Even if I don't get a lot of exposure in the games, the NFL scouts at practice see me and know what I can do. The exposure I've gotten just by being at USC is better, in the long run, than if I punted every other down on some other team.''

Ain't that the kicker?

CAPTION(S):

5 photos, box

Photo:

(1) With a 43-yard average, USC punter Tom Malone would be among NCAA leaders - if only he kicked enough to qualify.

Andy Holtzman/Staff Photographer

(2) MICHELLE WIE

(3) BRETT FAVRE

(4) PAUL DePODESTA

(5) - LPGA star Annika Sorenstam, after surviving last week's slow-play delayed Office Depot Championship on the multi-tiered fairway Trump National Golf Club carved out of the cliffs in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Box:

SUNDAY PUNCH

- Matthew Kredell
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Copyright 2005, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 9, 2005
Words:740
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