The official announcement came on a bright December day just before Christmas, and throughout Southern California, the stunning news flicked on smiles like so many twinkling holiday lights.
Matt Barkley was coming back.
USC’s blond poster boy was giving up the potential millions he could have earned as an NFL first-round draft choice to play his senior year for his beloved Trojans. Barkley’s return culminated the university’s remarkable climb back from those controversial NCAA sanctions to the glittering pinnacle of the college football hierarchy.
And just like that, Barkley became an all-time USC hero, the quarterback of a potential national championship contender, the frontrunner for the 2012 Heisman Trophy and a poster boy for all that is good and clean and pure about amateur athletics.
It was a decision that delighted people from the coastline of Santa Monica to the desert of Palm Springs. It also surprised almost everybody, beginning with those in the university football offices.
“I thought he was gone,” says coach Lane Kiffin. “I think 95 percent of the kids would have left under similar circumstances.”
But Barkley isn’t like 95 percent of the kids. In many ways, he is the collegiate equivalent of Tim Tebow, so squeaky clean that he’s already been on humanitarian missions to Nigeria, South Africa and Mexico and still has the same girlfriend he first met at age 5 in preschool.
Barkley is one of those kids who’s never even missed a snap, let alone a practice. He is deeply religious, a self-described “technology nerd” who is more likely to be found playing his guitar in church than at some wild party.
“I keep telling people I’m still waiting for him to do something wrong,” says Kiffin.
It could be a long wait. Especially now that Barkley has turned his back on the NFL, preferring to play another year in front of the adoring, sold-out crowds in the L.A. Coliseum.
“I know my decision affected a lot of people,” Barkley says. “But it wasn’t just about having so much fun in college. I’ve had a great time. But this was more about making the most out of what you started. Today, there is such an emphasis on instant gratification. I kind of wanted to send a message to guys around the country: Finish what you start.
“We went through so much, starting with the end of the (Pete) Carroll era, with the sanctions and no bowls and stuff. But in the second half of the season last year we could see ourselves rising out of it. We started playing for each other and having fun again.”
Maybe Les Barkley, Matt’s proud dad, puts it best: “After all they went through, Matt just thinks this team can do something extraordinary. He thinks they can create memories that will last a lifetime, something they can tell their kids and grandkids about some day.”
Now you know why this is the most eagerly awaited football season at USC since Carroll’s stirring national championship runs.
One of the reasons — maybe one of the biggest — for Barkley’s return is his first-hand knowledge of how good this team can be. He understands, better than anybody, that he will have the luxury of the finest pair of wide receivers in college football in All-American Robert Woods and soon-to-be All-American Marqise Lee. In 2011, Woods and Lee combined for a staggering 184 receptions, 2,435 yards and 26 touchdowns.
With potential All-America safety T.J. McDonald also back for his senior season, the Trojans will return the entire back seven on defense, most of their offensive line and a feisty 1,000-yard runner in ever-improving Curtis McNeal.
Most of all, though, there is Barkley, the 6'2", 230-pound Heisman candidate, the quarterback who is ready to join Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer among the USC royalty at the position, the poised, strong-armed senior who could shatter most of the Trojans’ career passing records before he is finished.
“It’s crazy to think about that,” Barkley says. “I grew up watching those guys play quarterback at USC. The fact that we’re friends now is even crazier. I still think Leinart is the best college quarterback to ever play the game, and Carson had just a tremendous senior year after a lot of coaching changes. Guys like that showed perseverance.”
Barkley has demonstrated more than a little of that himself. He was rushed in by Carroll to start as a true freshman, and although he played well early in his freshman season — most notably in a Week 2 win at Ohio State — his inexperience eventually caught up to him. Through his first two-and-a-half seasons, he had some great games, but he had some shaky ones, too.
Then, sometime in the middle of 2011, it was as if a cardinal and gold light clicked on. “It was right around the Notre Dame game,” Barkley says. “I think I started having more confidence in my teammates. I’d been a little apprehensive early, but everything started to fall into place and there was more chemistry, more mojo, as a team.”
In his final six games last year, he threw 23 touchdown passes with just three interceptions. He was 26-of-34 for 323 yards and four TDs in the huge upset victory at Oregon, then topped it off by competing 35-of-42 attempts (including 19 of his first 20) for 423 yards and six TDs in the 50–0 blitz of cross-town rival UCLA that elevated the Trojans into the top five nationally.
Because of the sanctions, there was no bowl invitation waiting. But there are no such constraints this season. That’s why Barkley is so excited and why he thinks both he and the team can get better.
“There are things I can improve on,” he says. “I want to become a more accurate passer, raise my completion percentage. I want to play with more precision. I definitely felt ready for the NFL, but because of my decision, I think I’ll be even more ready next time. I always think more experience can help.”
His Christian faith is as important to Barkley as it has been to the more high-profile Tebow. “We just express it differently,” Barkley says. “He’s more outward about it, I’m more private. But I’m glad he stuck to his guns. I’ve talked to him a couple times on the phone and I admire him as a leader.”
At USC these days, the one being admired is the Trojans’ clear-cut leader, the Pac-12’s rightful heir to Stanford’sAndrew Luck, the self-effacing senior who is more than happy to show that the collegiate experience is not just limited to mindless jocks getting ready for the NFL.
Somebody better cue up those highlight reels. On college football’s grandest stage, Matt Barkley’s eagerly anticipated final act could be something special.
This article appeared in Athlon's 2012 Pac-12 Preview Annual.
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