The list is certainly impressive -- Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty and Mark Sanchez. The USC starting quarterbacks who preceded Matt Barkley over the past decade accomplished as much as any group in college football history. Each of them left USC with at least one BCS bowl win and a top-five ranking on his resume. Two won Heisman Trophies. Three have been starters in the NFL.
The next quarterback in that Trojan lineup is Barkley, who arriv
ed in 2009 with as much hype and high school accomplishments as any of them. A four-year starter at perennial power Mater Dei, he also was a Gatorade Player of the Year award winner and MVP of the Under Armour All-American game.
Pete Carroll named him as the starter for his first game as a Trojan freshman, and he has been the face of the program ever since. He is a classic All-American kid, the kind of young man you would want your daughter to date, one who is polite to all he meets and who took a mission trip to Africa on his winter break last year.
All of that makes Trojan fans proud of Barkley, but as he enters his third year as a starter there is the sense it is time for him to take the next step on the field and achieve the kind of bottom line results which USC has become accustomed to seeing.
"At USC, quarterbacks are ultimately measured by wins and losses," said former Trojans wide receiver John Jackson, who now serves as the sideline analyst on USC radio broadcasts. "How did you do in the big games? What are your signature moments? That's what I'm looking to see from Matt this year. I want him to put the team on his back at some point and deliver that big win."
It's not like Barkley hasn't done that already. In only his second game, he led the Trojans on the road at the Horseshoe in Columbus, Ohio, and calmly marched the team right down the field on a game-winning drive in the final minute for an 18-15 victory over the Buckeyes. If you're looking for a big moment, you aren't going to do much better than delivering in that environment.
The issue for Barkley is those moments have been few and far between. His only bowl appearance so far has been a victory in the Emerald Bowl over Boston College, a nice notch on the belt to be sure but not exactly on par with a Rose Bowl win. His overall record in two years as a starter is 17-7, not bad by any stretch but this is a USC program that had lost only seven games combined in the previous six years before Barkley arrived.
To be fair, Barkley arrived at USC at a time of major upheaval with a coach who was on his way out the door, a transition to a new staff and enough NCAA sanctions to stagger any program. Through it all Barkley has never made excuses and has always shouldered the responsibility of being a team leader.
"He's just an absolutely incredible person," said Bill Cunerty, a former USC quarterback and national championship coach at Saddleback College in Orange County. "I've worked with him and tutored him at camps since he was a sophomore in high school and you just never see him get flustered.
"That's one of the things he has his common with the Trojan quarterbacks who came before him. The rest of the kids on the team know this and respond to that kind of leadership."
The position of quarterback, especially at a school like USC, is unlike any other in sports. It requires the ability to stand in front of the media day after day while always saying the right thing. There has to be a high level of physical prowess combined with good on-field decisions that are made while processing an amazing amount of information in a matter of seconds.
"The most important thing I'm looking for from Matt is the consistent ability to make plays when he needs to make them," said Paul McDonald, a USC national championship-winning QB in 1978 who is now the color commentator on Trojan radio broadcasts. "That's all part of decision making. Matt has the ability to make the big play, but he also needs to make that short bubble screen throw to keep a drive alive. Sometimes he 'dreams' something to happen, he wants to make a play so badly and it can result in a turnover. He needs to realize the plays he can and cannot make."
A huge key this year for Barkley is the fact he is in a second year with Kiffin as his play caller and with Clay Helton as his quarterback coach. A quarterback is essentially an extension of the play caller when he's on the field and it's so important for those two to be on the same page with their thinking and expectations.
"There has to be a trust between a play caller and his quarterback and it needs to go both ways," McDonald said. "Lane needs to trust that Matt will make the right decisions with the ball and Matt needs to trust that Lane will put him in situations where he won't need to do what he can't do. There's no question that level of trust should improve in their second year together.
"I also think Helton has done a great job with Barkley in terms of teaching the fundamentals, the refinement techniques that a lot of college coaches don't teach. All of that is part of helping Matt become a more consistent player on the field."
For Kiffin, when it comes to decision making there is no individual stat which reflects that more than the all-important touchdown-to-interception ratio. In 2009 Barkley had 15 TDs with 14 picks. Last year he improved to 26 TDs with only 12 picks. This year, the goal is to improve on that total even more.
"Our goal for Matt this year is to improve his decision making," Kiffin said. "You saw what he did last year with his touchdown-to-interception ratio, now we need to go to the next level. Matt can have one of those seasons like we've seen before with Carson, Leinart, John David, Mark Sanchez. I think he is on schedule to be in that conversation with those guys."
His coach believes Barkley can be one of the top players in the nation, and the evaluators who put together NFL mock drafts certainly seem to agree. Every 2012 mock draft you see has Barkley as the second quarterback taken in the draft next year if he decides to leave USC early.
It certainly helps his cause this year to have an elite receiver such as Robert Woods. The quarterbacks who came before him had receivers such as Mike Williams, Keary Colbert, Steve Smith, Dwayne Jarrett and Damian Williams. From what we've seen so far, Woods has the potential to be as productive as any of them.
Even Barkley knows, however, that no matter how the good the play calling is or how talented his receivers are, the success of his season will ultimately rest with one person.
"I think the big key this year is being consistent and not trailing out like I did the last two years," Barkley said. "I know what I'm capable of. I need to focus on being consistent the whole year, keeping a strong completion percentage and raising that ratio of my touchdown to interceptions.
"Ultimately it's all about wins and losses. We had a couple of losses last year where we didn't finish strong. I think by reversing that and winning more games this year, we'll be set."
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at email@example.com.