LOS ANGELES -- Last summer, four guys with a lot in common hung out in Manhattan and at the ESPN offices in Bristol, Conn. They had a good time. They traded war stories. But, no, Matt Barkley, Nick Foles, Jake Locker and Andrew Luck did not become good buddies. They didn't start firing off text messages talking smack to each other the way young men do when they bond. They didn't plan a Vegas getaway so they could radiate awesomeness as a foursome.
Locker is a likely first-round NFL draft pick next week. Luck will be touted as the likely top overall draft pick in 2012. Foles could join him in the first round, as Barkley likely would if he opted to leave after his junior season at USC.
"We're all good [with each other]," Barkley said. "But we're all kind of doing our own thing."
And, for Barkley, he admits that "our own thing" includes competing to be the best of the group.
"I definitely have them on the radar," Barkley said. "I'm aware of them. It is competition. Every quarterback wants to be the best at what they do. When I hear their name, I'm always trying to one-up them."
The best quarterback in the Pac-12 next fall likely will be the best quarterback in the nation. The second-team all-conference quarterback could end up a second-team All-American. Luck entered the offseason as the leading Heisman Trophy candidate. Barkley, Foles and Oregon's Darron Thomas will make most preseason watch lists for the award.
It seems a bit odd that the USC quarterback, a position in recent years that almost automatically included front-runner status for the bronze statue, is an underdog in the group. Luck is the decided front-runner. Thomas was second-team All-Pac-10 in 2010 and led the Ducks to the national title game. Foles has the best supporting cast of receivers of them all and could end up with the biggest numbers.
And Barkley? He's been running for his life this spring behind a patchwork offensive line.
Last year, Barkley went 1-3 against the group. He put up bigger numbers than Luck in a 37-35 nail-biting defeat at Stanford -- Luck was more efficient -- but put up inferior numbers against the other three, including in a win over Foles and Arizona.
The first priority for Barkley and the Trojans is reversing those numbers and winning those games. But Barkley also is honest enough to admit that he wants to eclipse the other Pac-12 quarterbacks and, yes, he wants to push into the Heisman discussion.
"You grow up wanting to be the best and the Heisman Trophy is the mark of the best player in the country. So, yes, I've dreamed of that," he said. "It's kind of what you expect here."
Barkley has been the quarterback of record during a tumultuous time at USC. He won the job as a true freshman over Aaron Corp and Mitch Mustain after Mark Sanchez surprised then-coach Pete Carroll by opting to leave early for the NFL. Carroll went from being perturbed with Sanchez to gushing over Barkley in rapid fashion, calling Barkley, the No. 1 high school prospect in the nation in 2009, an "outlier," a term Carroll adopted after reading Malcolm Gladwell's book titled the same.
"This is not a typical kid," Carroll said after Barkley won his first start over San Jose State.
Then Carroll bolted for the Seattle Seahawks, Lane Kiffin was hired and NCAA sanctions hammered the program. Along the way, Barkley's ride hasn't always been smooth. When his numbers are viewed from the perspective of being a starter as a true freshman and sophomore, 5,526 passing yards, 41 touchdowns and a 61 percent completion rate sound pretty darn good. But Carroll set him up as a mutant quarterback and he turned out to just be flesh and bone like everyone else -- see: 26 interceptions.
Further, going from Carroll's over-the-top praise to Kiffin's unadorned feedback was a challenge for Barkley. One of the first things Kiffin did was talk about how Barkley needed to lose some weight, and Barkley never seemed to be thrilled with his weight being an issue, even after he lost a few pounds.
"It was definitely different," Barkley said of the transition to Kiffin. "I didn't expect it. But you've got to learn to go with it and know how to react to him, what works with him and what doesn't."
But the tit-for-tat -- Barkley has made fun of Kiffin's inexperience on Twitter a couple of times this offseason -- doesn't seem to indicate tension between quarterback and coach.
"Everybody would ask me, 'What do you think of Kiffin?' expecting me to bash him. He's awesome," Barkley said. "He's a great playcaller. He pushes you to be the best."
And Kiffin likes what he's seen this spring from Barkley, who's the team's only returning captain while still being a young player (second semester sophomore).
"He's doing a really good job of being a leader," Kiffin said.
Other players have noticed. Said safety T.J. McDonald, "He's the centerpiece that's putting that all together, and you can see that by how the offensive members are responding."
Barkley wants to be the best. He admits that is a primary goal. He expects to become a Heisman Trophy candidate. And he expects to become a high NFL draft choice; though it's not a topic he will talk about, more than a few folks figure this is his last season at USC.
But the best way to accomplish his personal goals is to reverse the downward course of what had been a college football dynasty. Barkley's Heisman chances and perhaps even his NFL prospects will decline if the Trojans don't win.
"All that doesn't mean anything unless this year produces results," he said. "If this season doesn't produce what I want to do, which is be the best in the country, then it's worth nothing. If I'm playing my best football, it gives our team the best chance to be successful."
And if he plays his best football, Barkley believes he'll become the best quarterback in the land.