As Matt Barkley stood at the podium last December, flanked by his coach, athletic director, parents, and cheerleaders, University of Southern California fans eagerly waited to hear whether their phenom quarterback would stay in school or declare for the NFL draft. When Barkley announced that "the 2012 team has some serious unfinished business to tend to, and I intend to play a part in it," the crowd roared, the cheerleaders jumped with glee, and the band played the Trojans' fight song as if they'd just won a national championship. You can't fault their excitement, because with Barkley back leading the way, the Trojans will certainly contend for one.
His decision to return didn't occur because the NFL wasn't interested — Barkley appeared near the top of many 2012 mock draft boards before he chose to stay — but with USC's two-year postseason ban lifted, a preseason Number 1 ranking, and a shot at the Heisman, Barkley is ready for the challenge. "I really thought he should go. He was plenty ready," says USC head coach Lane Kiffin. "He'd been through all the hard stuff with the bowl ban and the sanctions and probation. [But] he wanted to come back and be one of the greatest Trojans of all time."
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Barkley came to USC from one of the premier high school football programs in the country, Mater Dei in Santa Ana, California, which has produced two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks. As a 15-year-old freshman, Barkley started at QB. That caught the eye of Kiffin, then USC's offensive coordinator. "To start as a freshman at a high school like that and to play well and be composed, really just set him apart from everybody else," says Kiffin.
In 2008 Barkley became the first junior ever to win Gatorade's high school male athlete of the year award. And by the time he graduated, he had broken almost every passing record at Mater Dei, surpassing notable alums Matt Leinart and Colt Brennan. Barkley completed his senior season and then finished high school a semester early so that he could immediately enroll that spring at USC and get on the practice field with the Trojans.
It didn't take Barkley long to get on the playing field either. In 2009 he became the first true freshman QB to start the season in USC's storied history. In his first game out for the Trojans, Barkley led his team to a win, but it was his second game, at Ohio State, that really turned heads. In a stadium packed with more than 106,000 fans, and with the game airing on national TV, Barkley orchestrated a late game-winning drive that earned him comparisons with QB greats such as John Elway and Joe Montana.
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"I remember every second of it," Barkley says. "It was a crazy environment to be in as a freshman. You couldn't have asked for a better ending. I just remember blocking out all of the noise and making sure we made the third downs and got in scoring position."
Bumps in the Road
The Trojans finished Barkley's freshman season with a win in the Emerald Bowl, but punishments handed down from the NCAA for prior violations guaranteed that the team wouldn't return to a bowl for another two years. Further adding to the upheaval, head coach Pete Carroll left to become coach of the Seattle Seahawks and Kiffin came in to replace him, bringing a new offensive system. Even though Barkley's numbers improved, the team's record slipped to a disappointing 8–5. Barkley saw that he still had room to grow.
"When you have an extremely talented arm, you can force balls and think you can fit it into any window," says Clay Helton, USC's QB coach. "We have ingrained in him the last few years [the need] to make smart decisions, check the ball down, don't make the courageous throw every time."
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Back on Top
In his second year under Kiffin's system, the instruction took hold. In 2011 Barkley completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, throwing for 3,528 yards and 39 TDs, while tossing only seven interceptions (down from 12 in his sophomore year and 14 in his freshman season). "I'm still a gunslinger, but I've learned to maximize completions," Barkley says. With the help of elite receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, the team beat eventual Pac-12 champ Oregon in a tough road game and finished the season with a 50–0 walloping of crosstown rival, UCLA. Kiffin calls that game Barkley's best as a Trojan. "He was so accurate; he was almost perfect," he says.
This year Barkley will continue to fine-tune his game, improving on the subtleties that will allow him to excel in the NFL, like reading defenses and making audibles on the field. In spring practice he even made some of the play calls when the younger QBs took snaps. "We've got coaches on the sideline, and you've got Matt Barkley, who's kind of a coach on the field now," Helton says.
With one more year at USC, Barkley hopes to return the program to its national championship-winning ways. "USC football over the past couple years has gone from greatness, down to a valley with sanctions and no bowl games," Barkley says. "I want to be the best and do something no one has ever done before. It's simple to say; it's hard to do, but I think it's possible."