LOS ANGELES -- When Pete Carroll was hired at USC in December of 2000, Matt Barkley was 10 years old. While the shock of Carroll's departure to the Seattle Seahawks hit Trojans fans hard -- weren't they going to "win forever" together? -- imagine what it was like for a kid from Orange County, Calif., who grew up rooting for the Trojans and became their starting quarterback as a true freshman.
"That's what I grew up knowing," Barkley said. "That's all I knew about. That's all I thought USC football was."
So it's understandable that Barkley felt "weird" early in spring practices watching Lane Kiffin call the shots and then seeing Carroll on the NFL channel wearing Seahawks colors.
"But I'm embracing the change and I think all the guys on the team are as well," Barkley said.
Couple of reasons for the embrace. For one, there wasn't much choice. Kiffin didn't bring in a warm-cuddly approach. Sad about Carroll bolting? Get over it. Get good or fall down the depth chart.
Kiffin immediately made it clear that Barkley wouldn't be handed the starting job, despite his passing for 2,735 yards and ranking third in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency as -- again, worth noting -- a true freshman.
Further, USC went 9-4 in 2009. It had lost nine games over the previous seven seasons. Carroll's wasn't the only big ego that was wounded last year, and those left behind are motivated to confront their newly empowered doubters, whoever captains the ship going forward.
"Last year was unacceptable, uncharacteristic of USC and this football program," Barkley said. "We expect something greater than that. We hold ourselves to a higher standard."
And, finally, Barkley intimates that -- just maybe -- change is good, particularly for him, considering how consistently mediocre the Trojans' offense was last year under coordinator Jeremy Bates.
He said he understood the concepts of Bates' offense. He said he was physically up to the job. He said that he was confident in himself and his supporting cast. And yet he kept recalling as the season progressed how past USC offenses looked different. You know: Good.
"I was kind of wondering,'Why aren't we there right now?'" he said, leaving it up to the audience to answer the question.
Barkley has appeared a lot closer to "there" this spring. In the last three scrimmages, he's thrown 10 touchdown passes with no interceptions. He's moving better in and out of the pocket. He seems to have quickly grasped Kiffin's offense, which is critical because Kiffin will call the plays.
While Kiffin started out seeming to want to challenge Barkley and perhaps even rattle him a bit and see how he responded to talk of competition, it appears Kiffin has been won over.
"He makes it very easy to forget he's a true freshman," Kiffin said. "I think a lot of people forget that. He's so far beyond a normal kid his age."
Still, Kiffin doesn't appear eager to mythologize Barkley, as Carroll did -- recall all that "outlier" talk that some reporters (cough, cough) ate up. In fact, one of the first things Kiffin told Barkley was he believed the quarterback was chubby.
How did the golden boy former super-recruit respond to that?
"He's bought into our conversations about changing his body," Kiffin said. "His body fat is way down. He's dropped weight and worked extremely hard. He's moving around completely different than he was a year ago on film."
Fact is, Barkley was fairly solid last year, though his 14 interceptions were more than any other Pac-10 quarterback. Watching him this spring -- the liveliness of his arm, his mechanics and accuracy -- it's easy to wonder if he might end up being mentioned along with Washington's Jake Locker and Stanford's Andrew Luck as the best quarterback in the conference by season's end.
When asked what he is working on, he mentions subtleties: mastering protections and check-downs, anticipating blitzes and coverages. He also seems to now better understand that, as cool as he might be, it's a mental and emotional challenge to be the USC quarterback, a position that produced two Heisman Trophies and three top-10 draft picks under Carroll.
"Being a quarterback here -- I don't consider it pressure -- but it has that weight from the fans, from the media, from even the students here at school," Barkley said. "You know that coming in. There's only one quarterback. You have to take that responsibility."
As for that quarterbacking legacy and all the acclaim -- and awards and NFL attention -- that come with it, Barkley ranks them behind a goal that will, in any event, have to be accomplished first in order for him to join the ranks of Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez.
"Getting back to the point where winning is the only thing we know and not accepting anything less," he said.