Sitting in a folding chair at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux this summer, USC quarterback Matt Barkley wasn’t thinking about how different his life might have been.
By that point, he would have been a millionaire, and by now, he could be battling for a starting job in the NFL.
Such were the options after a brilliant 2011 campaign. Barkley completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 3,528 yards and a Pac-12 Conference-record 39 touchdowns to go with a stingy seven interceptions.
But the possibility of being a top-10 pick in the NFL draft earlier this year wasn’t enough to pull him away. The Trojans have unfinished business, and Barkley aims to see them achieve it.
After riding out an NCAA postseason ban that put a damper on last year’s 10-2 record, Barkley and USC are ready for the payoff. His return, along with a stockpile of talent, make the top-ranked Trojans the favorites to win a national title and snap the Southeastern Conference’s six-year reign of dominance.
“Looking back, I don’t think I’ll have any regrets, no matter what happens,” Barkley said.
The Golden Boy
Barkley isn’t the first to pass up the pros for another go-round in college, but the circumstances that framed his decision are distinctive.
Unlike former USC quarterback Matt Leinart, who stayed after already having a national title and Heisman Trophy in the bag, Barkley’s path has been a rocky one.
A Southern California kid who grew up dreaming of the Cardinal & Gold, he played as a freshman, then watched as the school’s demigod coach, Pete Carroll, left for the NFL. Next came those NCAA penalties, the result of a four-year investigation into the career of Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush: a bowl ban, four years of probation and three years of scholarship penalties.
That figured to cripple the Trojans’ program, and an 8-5 mark in 2010 seemed to back up that sentiment. But Barkley was determined to ride out the storm.
“You look at guys like Leinart who stayed, and all of those guys were very different from me,” Barkley said. “The fact we haven’t been able to play for a bowl game the past couple of years and the sanctions, what that did to our team and how it brought us together, that made my situation unique.”
He could have looked for another school with a more short-term path to a championship, or just used the USC spotlight as a springboard to NFL riches. Instead, he became the team’s de facto spokesman in the face of the sanctions, and he spent his time trying to convince recruits and teammates that USC was still the place to be.
So when the time came to choose between college and pro, it was almost a no-brainer.
“I didn’t recruit Matt to stay,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said at Pac-12 Media Day in July. “Matt was completely ready for the NFL. I assume he would have been a top‑5 pick, totally ready to go in and be the face of a franchise and be ready to play in the NFL. His situation was different, and I think it was about him wanting to do something special.
“[He] may be able to go down as the most historic Trojan ever if we do big things this year.”
But a personal legacy wasn’t the driving force either, it was a chance to finish what the Trojans started in 2011.
Of course, Barkley is far from a one-man show.
He’s flanked by two of the nation’s best receivers in Robert Woods (111 catches, 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns) and Marqise Lee (73 grabs, 1,143 yards and 11 TDs). Speedy tailback Curtis McNeal is coming off a 1,000-yard season, and four of five starters are back on the offensive line, although the Trojans do have to replace left tackle Matt Kalil, the fourth overall pick in April’s draft.
As if they needed the help, the Trojans also received an unexpected gift this summer in the form of Silas Redd, who ran for 1,241 yards at Penn State last season before that school’s NCAA penalties freed him to transfer and play right away. Redd will be paired with McNeal, hoping for a rushing duo to rival the 2005 twosome of Bush and LenDale White, who combined for more than 3,000 yards.
After finishing as the nation’s No. 16 scoring offense last season, all that firepower makes USC’s offense a scary sight — a unit that maybe, just maybe, could break through a stingy SEC defense like LSU’s or Alabama’s in a potential BCS Championship matchup.
Alongside that offense, the Trojans defense won’t have to be iron-fisted, and that’s a good thing. The unit loses three starters off the defensive line and was prone to shootouts last year, with a 48-41 win against Arizona, a 43-22 loss to Arizona State and a 56-48 triple overtime defeat against Stanford.
But above all, USC is excited about carrying the momentum it began building at the midway point of 2011, when an upset win at Notre Dame kicked off a string of impressive performances. After that marathon loss to the Cardinal, the Trojans stomped Colorado and Washington, squeezed past Oregon and annihilated rival UCLA, 50-0.
That set the table for these current great expectations, and Barkley is making sure his teammates remember the darker days to stay grounded.
“We’re trying to approach this year the same,” Barkley said. “Even though we are eligible, we’re still approaching it as we have something to prove. We still have to have that itch to make a statement and prove something to the world.”
If there’s anything left for Barkley to prove, it’s that he made the right decision by coming back to USC for a shot at a title.
In all likelihood, his NFL dreams will still be waiting in the spring, and because medical advances have made the odds of a career-ending injury remote, he doesn’t plan to take out a high-dollar insurance policy.
But with the season opener against Hawaii looming, none of that is on Barkley’s mind.
For most of his life, the chance before him has been his goal.
So why think about anything else?
“I don’t think I passed up anything, to tell you the truth,” Barkley said. “Financially, you could argue it was a better decision to leave, but in my eyes, I’m not passing up anything. I’m taking this opportunity to play college ball for one more year.
“I’m not looking back at anything.”