Finishing the job

LOS ANGELES -- Much has been made about the fact that the USC Trojans have their sights set on a big season in 2012, one that could see them challenge for the Pac-12 and national titles.

Two of the key reasons for those lofty goals can be traced to last December with the decisions by Matt Barkley and T.J. McDonald to return to USC for their senior seasons.

There was definitely a point after the 2011 regular season had ended when both players thought they would be leaving for the NFL. Both had accomplished a lot on the college level -- there had been plenty of honors and individual statistics and nobody would have been surprised if they decided to move on.

In the span of a few days, however, the decisions were made to come back and, with those announcements, the fortunes of the Trojans 2012 season suddenly changed.

Without Barkley and McDonald, the Trojans would still have fielded a strong team this year. There was still going to be a wide array of talent of the field no matter what. But with the two of them back, the possibilities and expectations soared to the highest levels.

Instead of breaking in new players at key positions, the Trojans had their leaders back on both sides of the ball, bringing a certain comfort level to the rest of the team. There would be no need for an adjustment period on the field or a transition to a different style of leadership; things could remain the same as they had been for a team that finished the 2011 season with a lot of momentum.

"It's just a natural progression," USC cornerback Nickell Robey said. "Now guys can just play their roles without worrying about needing to do more or trying to be something they aren't. They can focus on their jobs while knowing that Matt and T.J. are still here to lead the way."

That impact was seen through the offseason in different ways. Barkley and McDonald were two of the USC players who took part in a trip to Haiti, where they helped to build homes and provide aid to an area that had been severely damaged by an earthquake. It was an experience that left a huge impression on all who went and has been credited with bringing the team even closer together.

The pair also led the offseason workouts, a critical time period that is the foundation of preparing for the upcoming season. With coaches not being allowed at those workouts, it is important for team leaders to set the tone to make sure the necessary work is done.

"Those two guys (Barkley and McDonald) provided strong senior leadership this off-season," USC head coach Lane Kiffin said. "They kept the effort going non-stop during a time when obviously our coaches can't do much."

That kind of leadership is especially important for this year's team -- one that will be relying on so many young and inexperienced players, who will be looking to Barkley and McDonald for guidance in the ways of USC football.

"When your best players are your hardest workers, it's fun to be a part of," USC running back coach Kennedy Polamalu said. "They show leadership with the way they prepare and work but they also give of themselves. That's special."

What will be special for USC fans is the sight of No. 7 coming onto the field this fall, whether it be on offense or defense. Barkley and McDonald not only share the same number -- they use a Twitter hashtag #7sup -- but they are also roommates who arrived four years ago at USC with lofty goals that took a detour with a coaching transition and NCAA sanctions.

As they prepare for the upcoming season, that transition has been made to the Kiffin coaching style and the team is once again eligible to make a run at postseason play.

"We're in our third year in the system," McDonald said. "Everybody has learned what they're doing, they know what to expect from the coaches and they know what the course is. Now it's just a matter of making sure we stay the course and keep everybody on track."

That course is about to get started for the 2012 Trojans and it's anybody's guess where it will end up. For Barkley, it's a chance to deliver on the catchphrase that he made so popular when he made his announcement to return.

"When T.J. and I decided to come back, we knew that we had a great time at USC and we've had a lot of fun but we hadn't maximized our potential," Barkley said. "I think that phrase "unfinished business" has to do with finishing at a top level with what we're capable of as a team. You hear so much about the concept of finishing, that's important, to finish our four years of college on a good note."