Matt Barkley is touching up a legacy

LOS ANGELES -- He showed up at USC three years ago, a doughy 18-year-old inheriting a program on the precipice of gloom. After Saturday, he just might exit, a chiseled 21-year-old who steered the program steadily -- and then suddenly -- back into the light.

If Matt Barkley does choose to go pro after his junior season, where will he rank in the pantheon of Trojans quarterbacks?

There have been a handful with greater physical tools. Carson Palmer springs to mind. Maybe even Rodney Peete. Others -- in fact, most -- have led their teams to greater accomplishments. Matt Leinart was the one who clutched the most meaningful trophies.

Barkley's name doesn't sit atop the lists just yet. He would have to return for his senior season to start ticking off the big school records. A good, even solid, season would surpass Leinart's 99 touchdowns and Palmer's 11,818 yards.

Barkley's legacy is subtler, but in no way less meaningful than any of his Heisman Trophy-winning predecessors: He marshaled USC through its darkest hour. If that wasn't clear before this season, it has sprung into crystal focus since the Trojans' stunning upset of No. 4 Oregon on Saturday in Eugene, Ore.

Barkley isn't USC's savior -- its history, its human capital and its location are what figure to save the program -- but he is the player most responsible for its redemption. Around Halloween, his mom emailed him photographs of kids in their Newport Beach neighborhood wearing Barkley No. 7 jerseys. That's when it hit him: It wasn't long ago that he was that little kid wearing Palmer's No. 3 or Leinart's No. 11.

It made him examine his legacy, though he says he hasn't yet decided whether it will be complete by the end of this weekend.

"I saw those kids and wondered, 'What do they think of me?'" Barkley said. "I think more than just a quarterback -- the numbers and all those things -- I'd like to be thought of as a guy who was a Trojan, I think the definition of a Trojan, during the not-the-most-ideal situation at USC, and a guy who kind of took the reins and led this team and this school.

"That's one of the things I kind of prided myself in over the last year."

Barkley was still 19 when he was hastily hustled in front of reporters and TV cameras after the NCAA announced the sanctions on USC on June 10, 2010. Barkley was steadfast under a barrage of tough questions. He said it was a difficult time, but not something that would sink the program. He said he would do his best to convince his older classmates not to transfer after the NCAA gave them a free pass to do just that.

That might have been the moment Barkley became the leader of this team, but it wasn't the first time he'd shown maturity beyond his years. Khaled Holmes, USC's center, first saw it when he was in sixth grade and he met Barkley at a Bible study class at the Barkleys' home. He watched after Barkley arrived on USC's practice field as the quarterback gradually earned the respect of older teammates.

"Guys recognized not only his skill, but his work ethic, his willingness to learn and his mental strength as well," Holmes said.

For the longest time, it looked like Barkley would never get to soak in what his heroes Palmer and Leinart enjoyed while in school. If Barkley does enter the NFL draft, he will have played in just one bowl game, the Emerald Bowl. But lately, really just in the past week, he has started to gain a steady stream of accolades. Conference coaches have wondered publicly whether he is the equal of Stanford's brilliant quarterback, Andrew Luck. With one week left in the season, the school finally put together a Heisman video.

And with that -- just as all those 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls for morning practice, those film sessions, those treatments, those Sunday critiques begin to pay off -- he might be gone. Saturday might be it.

"It definitely is a possibility, but that will be something I look back at after the game," Barkley said. "Why change my perspective or outlook now, just because it's near the end?"

Somebody asked coach Lane Kiffin if he thinks Barkley will be overcome with emotions before or during the UCLA game, as Leinart was in 2005, when he was incomplete on his first five passes and sent one ball soaring 10 feet over a receiver's head.

"Why? He's got a whole other year," Kiffin said.

He was only half-joking, the other half earnestly hoping he's right. Barkley continues to maintain that he's "50-50" on returning. If it were strictly a business decision, it would be easy. Most accountants – and probably all agents -- would urge him to go pro now. Why risk your future to move up, most likely, fewer than 10 spots in the draft?

"I think because of who he is, it probably brings it closer to 50-50 because of what his values are compared to most kids today," Kiffin said.

And if Barkley does leave, the NFL team that gets him should thank the NCAA. It's likely that any team that drafts Barkley would be in rebuilding mode, searching for a new leader, with a poor enough record to draft high. If there's anyone who has proven he knows how to dig a team out of a deep hole...

"I think this situation has prepared me for a lot of things in life, and that very well could be one of them," Barkley said.

Mark Saxon covers USC for ESPNLA.