FOXBOROUGH -- Matt Cassel arrived already a star, hype behind him and a world waiting to be owned ahead. He came to the University of Southern California with his name atop every recruiting list, a can't-miss quarterback and professional baseball prospect ready-made to be Big Man on Campus.
Four years and 33 pass attempts later, Cassel left USC an unknown, hype washed away by seasons of handling clipboards instead of hardware. He watched teammates Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart win national championships and Heisman Trophies, playing the role of understudy to the matinee idols.
Blessed by learning from two of the best college quarterbacks in a decade but cursed by having to compete against them, Cassel never started a game in college. But the talent remained, and it was evident as he strutted for NFL teams leading up to this spring's NFL Draft. The Patriots took notice, and nabbed Cassel in the seventh round, with the 230th choice.
Cassel has been one of the brightest surprises at Patriots training camp, quickly taking command of the offense and showcasing arm strength and accuracy to spare. If any observers who'd never heard of the NFL strolled onto the field when training camp commenced and watched the Patriots practice for two weeks, they surely would come away with the idea that Cassel would be the man backing up Tom Brady.
''I've always known I had the physical capabilities," said Cassel, surrounded by more minicams than he'd seen in years. ''I played behind two Heisman winners, and I was right there, biting on their toes. Who knows what would have happened if I had got the opportunity to play?"
It's a question that ate at Cassel as he remained on the sidelines for four seasons. He redshirted his freshman year, then many figured he'd beat out Palmer, who'd struggled during his sophomore season while returning from an injury, in 2001. But Palmer kept his job, then went on to win the 2002 Heisman Trophy and become the first pick in the 2003 NFL Draft.
Trying to utilize Cassel's considerable athletic ability, USC (and former Patriots) coach Pete Carroll moved Cassel to H-back, where he started one game, and receiver.
He moved back to quarterback as a sophomore to back up Palmer and prepare to assume the starter's role as a junior. Enter Leinart, who beat out Cassel, then played some of the best college football in a decade for two years. Cassel toyed with playing tight end, but eventually settled into his backup role.
''It was difficult from a competitive standpoint," Cassel said. ''I'm competitive. When you get in that situation and you're eager to get out there, sometimes it takes its toll mentally."
Knowing he'd be a backup once more as a senior, Cassel skipped spring practice and pitched for the USC baseball team. His older brother Jack plays in the Padres' minor league system, and his younger brother, Justin, plays for California-Irvine's nine.
After just his one season, the Oakland A's selected Cassel in the 36th round of the 2004 baseball draft. But the idea of traveling in buses for five seasons in the minors didn't appeal to Cassel, and he didn't sign.
Not many backup quarterbacks have the option, and that's the thing with Cassel. Blessed with California cool and all-American athleticism, he never knew much adversity. When confronted with it, he handled it with aplomb. He thought about transferring -- and would have had many suitors -- but by the time Leinart beat him out, only one semester separated him and his degree, and he didn't want to interfere with that.
His effort never wavered, Carroll said, and that is true in Patriots camp, where Cassel tends to finish first in wind sprints. He won an award for being the USC upperclassman with the highest grade-point average as a junior. He never complained.
''He's a fun guy to be around," Brady said. ''He loves to get into it. He loves the coaching. He wants the reps and to go out there and perform. He's making the most of his opportunities. He's done a really great job."
''The fact that he remained a Trojan and continued to battle says a tremendous amount about the loyalty he had for his school and his teammates," Carroll said in an e-mail. ''He's a competitor and considered other options, but decided USC was where he wanted to be."
After all, even backing up at USC prepared Cassel for the NFL. He learned a pro-style offense under offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who is now with the Tennessee Titans. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Cassel, despite his limited game experience, had a better grasp of the playbook than Kliff Kingsbury did a year ago, and Kingsbury set 17 NCAA passing records. Plus, at an NFL factory like USC, Cassel wasn't exactly playing against stiffs running the practice team.
''Of course, the more game experience the better, but he practiced here against great defenses every day," Carroll said. ''He got tons of work against some top players who are playing at the next level like Troy Polamalu and Shaun Cody, so it gave him a feel for game-time speed."
Still, Cassel has shined as a pro only on the practice field, and no matter how many defensive studs he faced during practice, nothing compares to playing before 60,000 people against a defense that won't take it easy on you because you're wearing a red jersey. How he fares Friday night, when the Patriots play an exhibition game in Cincinnati, will be a big test for the young quarterback.
He'll try to pass it before a familiar face. His old college roommate, Palmer, will be starting at quarterback for the Bengals. The two remain the best of friends. Cassel called him Monday night just to chat, to talk about handling the rigors of his first camp, and to rehash old times.
''Hopefully he'll be giving me the signals on the other sideline," Cassel joked.
That's doubtful. The one thing Palmer did give Cassel was knowledge, something he's getting more of from Brady and Doug Flutie, the third Heisman winner he's played behind. He's appreciative, but he hopes someone else will be learning from him one day.
''I've definitely been fortunate to be around so many great players," Cassel said. ''It's amazing -- three Heisman Trophy winners and a Super Bowl MVP. I've got a good entourage of great QBs that I've been around during my small tenure. It's great being around them; I love 'em to death. But I would have loved to play."