Kicking off Pac-12 Week.
When recruiters finally collapse onto their desks at night, Barkley is the prototype, blue-chip pocket passer they see in their dreams. He showed up at USC two years ago as the No. 1 quarterback prospect in America, the latest and most celebrated product of the bottomless quarterback pipeline from nearby Mater Dei High; within a few months of stepping on campus, he was the first true freshman in school history to start his first game.
In terms of advance hype, opportunity at a traditional powerhouse and squeaky-clean charisma — before he even left high school, Barkley had already been on mission trips to build homes for the poor in Mexico, volunteered at an orphanage in South Africa and led a drive to raise money for families of Marines — he was the West Coast's answer to Tim Tebow. Except that, after two years as a starter, pro scouts are now dreaming about Barkley's potential, too.
The fact that he hasn't broken through on anything remotely approaching a Tebow-esque scale in those two years is a testament to just how high the bar is for a golden boy quarterback at USC — and to just how far short the Trojans have fallen under the combined weight of NCAA sanctions and on-field mediocrity. The NFL doesn't care about that stuff; it cares about Barkley's arm. But if this fall is his last at USC, Barkley's not only throwing against the competition for a slot in the first round: As the undisputed leader of a lineup otherwise lacking in its usual star power, it may also be his last bid for a legacy that transcends the fall of the Trojans' West Coast empire.
To some extent, again, he's been a victim of the gleaming records that came before him. Barkley has 17 wins as a starter, more than any outgoing or returning Pac-12 quarterback except Stanford's Andrew Luck, but has also been a part of as many losses (7) as predecessors Matt Leinart, John David Booty and Mark Sanchez suffered from 2003-08 combined. As a freshman, he orchestrated a dramatic, game-winning touchdown drive at Ohio State in his second game, but also presided over two of the worst beatings in school history against Oregon and Stanford. As a sophomore, he finished third in the Pac-10 in passing yards, touchdowns and efficiency, but averaged fewer yards per game than any USC quarterback in a decade, with fewer TDs and a lower passer rating than any Trojan QB in that span except Booty in 2007.
It would be easier to be optimistic about Barkley's progress if it hadn't seemed to come unraveled as the season progressed. USC dropped five of eight games, with two of the three wins in that span coming by one point (34-33 over Arizona State) and three points (24-21 over Arizona), respectively. Even with a relatively consistent ground game keeping defenses honest, the occasional Favre-like tendency to strong-arm balls into coverage resulted in another season of double-digit picks, contributing to the diminishing returns by the entire offense. He served up two interceptions against Oregon on the biggest stage of the season on Oct. 30; before he was knocked out of the Nov. 20 loss at Oregon State with an injured ankle, Barkley had already thrown a pick-six and was battling through the worst two quarters of his career in an eventual 36-7 rout.
Barkley didn't play at all against Notre Dame, another disappointing loss in a driving rainstorm, and returned only to serve up two more picks in an ugly finale at UCLA a week later. That win left the offense averaging a full 60 yards and six points less per game for the season than it had been averaging at the Oct. 23 bye week.
Taken as a whole, though, 2010 was a clear step forward over Barkley's 2009 debut, both on paper and in his comfort level in Lane Kiffin's offense as opposed to Jeremy Bates'. Over the first half of the season, the "potential" gave way to actual production: Through the first seven games, Barkley passed for multiple scores in six of them, with 20 touchdowns to just four interceptions. When the defense went to sleep in last-second losses to Washington and Stanford in early October, the offense put the pedal down for 30-plus points and nearly 500 yards of total offense in both. In the latter, Barkley dueled Andrew Luck to a virtual draw with 390 yards and three touchdowns in a losing effort against the Cardinal, and bounced back the following week to bomb Cal for five touchdown passes — all in the first half — en route to a 48-14 massacre. He had a firm grip on Kiffin's offense, a go-to target in freshman burner Robert Woods and the complete confidence that the offense is built around his right arm.
That will be even more true in 2011, when the offense not only returns Woods but also adds a pair of mega-hyped, top-ranked freshmen, Kyle Prater and George Farmer, to Barkley's array of targets. Even the young, mostly revamped offensive line features a likely top-10 pick at left tackle, Matt Kalil. Based on the career trajectory of other touted pocket slingers, Year Three is where the rubber meets the road: Jimmy Clausen, Mark Sanchez, Matt Stafford, Josh Freeman, Matt Ryan, JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn all converted their simmering potential as underclassmen into big seasons as juniors that propelled them into the first round of the draft. Andrew Luck could have done the same last year if he'd wanted to.
As a sophomore, Barkley was ahead of arguably everyone in that group. Short of injury, there's nothing stopping him from following them: He has the arm, the experience, and an abundance of surrounding talent. If he's going to put it together in time to make good at USC, though, he has to add the consistency, and he has no time to waste.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.