FOXBORO, Mass. (AP) – Matt Cassel has learned by playing with top quarterbacks. On Friday night, he actually might use that knowledge in a game.

That’s when the New England Patriots play an exhibition game at Cincinnati. The Bengals are led by quarterback Carson Palmer, a good friend and college roommate of Cassel’s and one of two Heisman Trophy winners who played ahead of him at Southern California.

“That’s my buddy. I just called him last night,” Cassel said Tuesday. “I learned a lot from him.”

He also learned from Matt Leinart, the Heisman winner he played behind the past two years after Palmer left. Now he’s getting tips from another quarterback who will keep him on the bench, Tom Brady, and the winner of the 1984 Heisman Trophy, Doug Flutie.

All that may make Cassel, who had the highest grade-point average among USC’s upperclassmen when he was a junior, the smartest quarterback who doesn’t play.

“I’ve been very fortunate to be around so many great players,” said Cassel, who threw 33 passes in four college seasons, “but as much as I’d like to say it’s been outstanding, I would have loved to play.”

His lack of playing experience hasn’t kept him from making an impression in the camp of the Super Bowl champions. He’s worked hard, done a decent job learning the offensive system and displayed a strong arm.

“Matt’s done a really nice job,” Brady said. “He’s a lot of fun to be around and he’s really taken this opportunity and made the most of it and he’s gone out and played really well.”

Cassel wasn’t drafted until the seventh and final round but figures now that he’s in camp that doesn’t matter. Like any draftee, he has a chance to impress the coaches. Brady was drafted in the sixth round and won two Super Bowl MVP trophies.

Cassel is competing with Rohan Davey, the fourth quarterback in camp.

“Ro has continued to improve at his position in a number of different things,” coach Bill Belichick said.

But, like Casell, he’s seen limited action, throwing 19 passes in three pro seasons after being drafted in the fourth round by New England.

“That’s important for any quarterback … to be able to have game conditions,” Belichick said. “You can simulate it in practice, but it’s really not the same.”

As long as Brady stays healthy there’s not much chance for his backups to play.

Cassel was part of a pro-style offense in college and wasn’t far behind Palmer and Leinart in their competitions for the starting job.

“The physical capability’s always been there,” Cassel said. “I was right there biting on their toes. So who knows what would have happened if I would have gotten the opportunity to play. And I’ve always prepared myself like I was a starter and always got myself ready to play.

“So for me being here at this level, I wasn’t surprised about it but I anticipate, hopefully, just getting better.”

He played baseball in college in 2004 but skipped the 2005 season to prepare for the NFL draft.

“I think I’ve played well” in camp, he said. “There’s been your mistakes here and there, but I think I’m starting to pick up the offense a little bit better.”

With his career as a college backup behind him, he’s another newcomer with the Patriots trying to make the team. On Tuesday, he walked off the field carrying the jerseys and shoulder pads of Brady and Davey, a rite of passage for rookies.

Not a bad job for someone who made the NFL after riding the bench in college.

“He stuck with it and stayed there and he ended up not getting much playing time,” Flutie said, “but it doesn’t mean he’s any less the quarterback for it.”

Now Cassel is where he wants to be after all the frustrations of not playing.

“Sometimes it takes its toll mentally, but you’ve got to stick to it and, thankfully, it’s all ended up pretty well,” he said.

AP-ES-08-09-05 1832EDT


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