IRVINE, Calif. — Matt Barkley takes a seat on the patio of a country-club restaurant, framing himself inside a lush fairway that seems as long as an unbroken Southern California shoreline. Clad in a dark sweater on a pleasant mid-April afternoon, the former USC quarterback has purposely given me this view so that I can get the most out my visit to the Strawberry Farms Golf Club, which is just a few par 5s from his parents' Newport Beach home.
As he talks about the disappointing senior season that may have damaged his once bullish NFL draft stock, Barkley is also providing a window into his psyche – and the experience is somewhat counterintuitive. While the setting may scream privileged, laid-back California kid and all that such a stereotype implies, Barkley's words and tone contain a palpable edge.
Regarded after his junior season as a sure top-five pick, Barkley now faces the prospect of an unfulfilling night of Must Flee TV, should he slip out of Thursday's first round altogether. And as he contemplates an uncertain pro football future, Barkley has some very definite ideas about what went wrong in his immediate past.
"Yeah, I've thought about it long and hard," Barkley says as he picks disinterestedly at his Cobb salad. "I learned how to handle adversity last season, and maybe I could have done a few things differently. I could've had a bigger voice, given more input and taken it to the next level — pretty much as the owner of the company might … not just letting things happen.
"You put faith in your coaches, but when you see trends, things not happening the right way, and when the team rests on your shoulders, it's almost like you have to step up. You can't just let these things go by and watch them disintegrate in front of you. You've got to put the glue in somewhere. Looking back, I wish I'd been more forceful."
For all the talk about Barkley's supposedly substandard arm strength, the powerful nature of his leadership persona should not be underestimated. At 22, he is essentially taking himself to task for not having imposed his will on USC coach Lane Kiffin as the Trojans, the nation's top-ranked team heading into the 2012 season, unraveled after a 6-1 start and staggered to a 7-6 finish.
In pre-draft meetings with various teams, Barkley has been heartened by conversations with NFL coaches and talent evaluators who seem to understand and share his perspective about the adversity he faced in 2012. He does not expect your sympathy, but as soon-to-be-wealthy football prospects go, Barkley could use a hug more than most.
"It can, at times, seem daunting because of what people say," Barkley conceded. "It kind of becomes a snowball effect."
After all the euphoria that accompanied Barkley's surprising decision to stay for his senior season, the hits kept coming for the four-year starter, literally and figuratively. His hopes of winning a "natty" disappeared in November, as did his Heisman prospects. Soon, he lost his health as well, suffering a separated throwing shoulder late in the Trojans' November defeat to UCLA that sidelined him for the rest of the season.
In NFL circles, his reputation took a beating, too.
"Right now he should have a chip on his shoulder," says one AFC coach who has studied Barkley extensively. "He should have something to prove. And I think he will. He has a personality that is going to take him a long way."
Added a scout for an NFC team: "He's pissed off cause everything he reads and hears is that he suddenly sucks. He had a rough few months. His season went south. He got hurt and couldn't throw at the [NFL scouting] combine. He got all kinds of bad press."
The assault on Barkley isn't merely media driven, however. According to an AFC scout who attended USC's pro day, a high-level executive for one quarterback-needy franchise was so underwhelmed by Barkley's performance that he walked out early, later expressing his lack of regard for the quarterback's arm.
"I think people are overreacting," says the scout, who has a high first-round grade on Barkley. "He's a real good leader. He's accurate and makes good decisions — he's a true West Coast guy. He's not athletic enough to improvise and make plays, and he doesn't have a Matt Stafford-type cannon — but he has a knack for putting deep balls right in there. And he's smart, efficient and good under pressure."
If nothing else, the onslaught of doubt has helped liberate Barkley from the stigma of cruising through life as the latest Southern California signal caller on whom the sun perpetually shines. More than the quartet of USC quarterbacks currently in the pros (Carson Palmer, Matt Cassel, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez) — and, to some degree, because of them — Barkley will enter the league having already been bombarded with criticism.
"It seemed like at USC, even from a football standpoint, every team was playing us like it was their Super Bowl," Barkley says. "Do lots of people want us to fail? Probably, just because they think we have it good. They think, 'Everything there is all right. Everything is perfect.' They need to bring you back to earth, tear you down, make you fail.
"I've learned to live with it, but even when we were winning early in the season, people had the wrong perception. Because everything was definitely not all right."
Some of the problems that plagued the Trojans were obvious. A lack of depth stemming from the scholarship reductions which were part of the NCAA sanctions against the program in 2010 intensified the impact of key injuries.
With left tackle Matt Kalil having bolted for the pros and senior center Khaled Holmes felled by an ankle injury early in the 2012 season, the Trojans' pass protection and run-blocking suffered. The depth issue, Barkley said, "definitely caught up with us. It affected the way we practiced, because we couldn't risk the contact. Three years in a row, we couldn't even hit in our spring game. I mean, no hitting. It was basically like we were running drills. Not good."
USC also struggled defensively, especially during the second half of the season, with defeats to Arizona (39-36), Oregon (62-51) and UCLA (38-28) in which the Trojans couldn't stop a marching band. While Barkley concedes that he forced some passes during that stretch, it's easy to see why.
"When you look up and they're scoring every time, you feel like you have to be Superman," Barkley says. "I know as a quarterback I didn't digress this year, but because of circumstances out of my control and because at times I tried to do too much, the results weren't what I wanted."
Equally bothersome to Barkley was a sudden shift in the Trojans' passing-game priorities, with then-sophomore wideout Marqise Lee replacing junior Robert Woods as the primary target.
Woods had hauled in 111 receptions for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011, earning AP All-American honors, while Lee caught 73 passes for 1,143 yards and 11 scores. Last season, the numbers were essentially reversed, with Lee (118 receptions, 1,721 yards, 14 TDs) being featured at the expense of Woods (76 receptions, 846 yards, 11 TDs).
This change in priorities was not insignificant to NFL talent evaluators.
"He forced a lot of throws," another AFC team's scout says of Barkley. "He tried to force the ball to Marqise Lee too much. He locked onto targets. He looked like a programmed guy."
Barkley wasn't thrilled with the state of affairs.
"Kiff kind of suited the play-calling toward Marqise," Barkley says. "It was rough at times, because defenses kinda knew what was coming. It was sort of predictive. Robert Woods is a great player. … You want to be respectful of your coaches, because they are your elders, but when it falls on your shoulders, you probably should get involved."
When Barkley makes such statements, they aren't the hollow words of an impudent neophyte. He has been a starting quarterback for a big-time program since the ninth grade, when he literally needed permission to run the offense as a freshman at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana.
"He actually had to get a variance, because the CIF Southern Section didn't allow 14-year-olds to play varsity," says Barkley's father, Les, a former All-American water polo player at USC. "He needed the doctor to sign off, and the principal had to sign off, and I had to sign off.
"In four years at Mater Dei, he never spent a day in the lunchroom, because he was in the coach's office breaking down film. And he brought film home at night. And that ability — to break down his own film — allowed him to succeed quickly at USC."
After winning the Trojans' starting job as a true freshman — a position vacated after Sanchez turned pro following his junior season — Barkley stayed true to his school. Even in the wake of coach Pete Carroll's departure to the Seattle Seahawks and the ensuing NCAA sanctions, which rendered USC bowl ineligible for the following two years, he says he never considered transferring.
Barkley's improvement curve was pronounced during each of his first three college seasons. He was so good as a junior (39 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 69.1 completion percentage, 3,528 yards) in leading the Trojans to a 10-2 record that turning pro seemed like a no-brainer. Barkley, however, chose to stay, viewing the chance to win a national championship as a unique opportunity.
"Matt stayed because he had been through so much with his teammates and he said, 'Our team has a chance to do something really exceptional,' " says Les, a partner in an investment firm. "To take a team that had been basically dealt a death knell and to take them through that and potentially win it all… what an opportunity. He knew full well what he was giving up, but he said, 'You know what? Am I gonna look back and wonder what might have been?'"
Instead, Barkley endured a senior season that caused many football fans to wonder, What the hell was he thinking? It's tough to know how much staying in school ultimately cost him; quite possibly, the same questions about his arm strength and athleticism might have emerged had he declared for the draft a year ago.
His senior-year struggles are also somewhat overstated. Barkley's completion percentage plummeted to 63.1, and he threw more than twice as many interceptions (15) than he did as a junior. However, Barkley still threw for 36 touchdowns and 3,273 yards before suffering his season-ending injury, figures comparable to his 2011 totals. And concerns about his ability to throw deep, complete passes on the move and stand tall in the face of pressure don't necessarily reflect reality, either.
"I would probably say [staying] hurt him, to an extent," says the second AFC scout. "Everybody thought he was coming out, and all the grades that were on him last January were a lot higher. Now, teams had more time to pick at him. And he didn't play as well.
"Plus, he's pretty much a finished product. He's not a Geno Smith with a ton of athletic ability and upside, if you can correct some of those flaws. He kind of is what he is. He's been in a pro-style offense. You're not betting on the come with that guy."
That said, many talent evaluators believe that the finished product is plenty good enough. If Barkley can get into a situation in which he's not asked to carry an offense, numerous NFL coaches and general managers are convinced he has the tools to be a successful starter.
Where he'll end up remains a mystery. With no Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III in this draft, Barkley ranks among a group that includes West Virginia's Smith, Syracuse's Ryan Nassib, Florida State's E.J. Manuel and North Carolina State's Mike Glennon, all of whom are considered strong candidates to be drafted in the first two rounds. In what order — and how trades involving quarterback-needy teams might impact the selections — is anybody's guess.
Earlier this month, Barkley took official visits to the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills. He met with Jacksonville Jaguars coaches and executives the night before USC's pro day and also had private workouts for the Bills and Arizona Cardinals, receiving a left-handed compliment following the latter session.
"I think it was [general manager Steve Keim] who said, 'Oh, it was better than we thought it would be,' " Barkley recalls, smiling. "I'm thinking, 'What did you think it was gonna be? That I was gonna throw every ball in the dirt?' "
There's that edge again, a quality that prospective employers would be wise not to discount. Like the NFL quarterback he idolizes, Drew Brees, Barkley possesses an "I'll show you" streak that seems pretty far removed from the Pretty Boy stereotype attached to his alma mater.
"This whole SoCal surfer thing — he's never even been on a surfboard," Les Barkley says of his son. "He's a hard-working, conservative, dedicated young man with a lot of goals, and he's got a lot of fire inside him."
With a legacy of missionary work in his past and a July wedding in his near future (Barkley recently proposed to his childhood sweetheart, former Seattle Pacific soccer player Brittany Langdon, on the playground where they met as kindergarteners), this is a quarterback whose maturity should serve him well. And he hopes that whatever his disheartening senior season cost him in terms of draft stock, there will be a corresponding payoff in battle-hardened fortitude.
Even as he sits stoically in the shadow of a golf course on another sunny day in the O.C., Barkley sounds like someone who'd much rather be grinding away in a film room — and, having learned some hard lessons in 2012, taking charge of a locker room.
"I feel like I've learned to handle any firestorm," he says. "It will definitely help me at the next level. When you're the face of a program, you have to manage more than just throwing a football. I'll be ready."
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