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Why Matt Barkley Shouldn't Go Pro

Johnie Freatman |
November 4, 2011 | 9:17 a.m. PDT

Associate Sports Editor


Matt Barkley has a chance to be one of the all-time Trojan greats if he stays. (Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy)
Matt Barkley has a chance to be one of the all-time Trojan greats if he stays. (Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy)

The leader of an undefeated, top-five football team. The Heisman Trophy favorite. The slam-dunk top pick in the NFL Draft. Potential college football immortal.

These are all descriptions for Andrew Luck, who last Saturday at the Coliseum showed he is deserving of every single one of these honors.

However, one can’t help but think of the tantalizing potential for another quarterback in that game to be bestowed with similar honors if he, as Luck did before him, returns for one more year.

It’s difficult to quantify just how much Matt Barkley has meant to the USC football program and university as a whole. From the time he led “The Drive” in his second career start, everyone knew he would be special.

What people didn’t understand is just how special he would have to be to weather the circumstances around him. After the NCAA’s draconian sanctions were announced, everybody would have understood if he wanted to transfer. After all, this was the top recruit in the country who had left the nation gushing about his potential following his freshman season. Somebody who had dreamed of playing in Rose Bowls and national championships since he was a kid.

Then, with the drop of the NCAA hammer, Barkley was left to play for pride and his university’s name instead of national championships. Instead of becoming a candidate for the Heisman Trophy, he became an unofficial spokesman for his athletic program and university.

Though the ensuing two seasons have been good ones for Barkley, there’s no doubt the complete experience isn’t what he expected when, as a high schooler, he committed to USC. Not only have the stakes been diminished, the excitement surrounding the program has at times felt as drained as a balloon lacking helium.

All of that has changed the last two weeks. All of a sudden, with two impressive prime-time performances, the sizzle has--at least temporarily--returned to USC football. Not only is there anticipation for the rest of the season, Trojan fans are already excited about the prospects of next year’s team, which finally has a bowl to play for again.

Thus, Barkley is at a crossroads. Though four games remain in the 2011 season, Barkley’s decision to leave for the NFL or return for his senior year is the elephant in the middle of Heritage Hall.

As Luck has shown this year, there can be a definite upside to delaying NFL riches. In fact, Barkley may have more to gain by staying than any such prospect in recent memory.

If the decision is to be made solely on the basis of his NFL prospects, Barkley will find multiple compelling reasons to return, ironically starting with Luck, who is the slam-dunk number one overall pick in this year’s QB-rich draft. 

Not only is Barkley not the top-rated QB, but there are many who believe he wouldn’t even be number two on the list. 

Oklahoma’s Landry Jones has been very impressive this year and his commanding size and arm strength are traits Barkley doesn’t possess. Robert Griffin of Baylor has vaulted up the boards and if he opts to enter the draft early and wows teams with his athleticism and ability in pre-draft workouts, it’s not inconceivable to see a team taking his upside over Barkley’s.

The bottom line is, as great as Barkley has looked lately, there’s much uncertainty surrounding his draft position. While he’s likely a first-round pick, he could be No. 2 overall … or a mid-to-late first rounder.

Were Barkley to return for his senior year and the aforementioned names were to declare, there’s no question he’d be the top overall quarterback prospect entering next season. Considering that 10 of the last 13 number one picks have been quarterbacks, one would think Barkley could hear Roger Goodell say his name very early in the 2013 draft.

Additionally, Barkley would be a frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy. His stellar play this year has remained under-the-radar nationally not just because of USC’s bowl ban but also because of some impressive campaigns from other offensive superstars. 

Not only will Luck be gone from the college football landscape next year, Kellen Moore and Case Keenum will have exhausted their college football eligibility. Other Heisman contenders, like Jones, Trent Richardson, and Justin Blackmon are expected to declare early for the draft.

Of course, the Heisman can’t be predicted before the season. Unexpected candidates always emerge, much like Cam Newton did in 2010. 

Then again, it’s hard to see Barkley falling off pace with the embarrassment of riches he would have on offense. 

Billetnikoff Award candidate Robert Woods would be a junior and arguably the best receiver in the country; Marqise Lee, who has been compared to USC receiving greats by Lane Kiffin, will only continue to realize the abundance of talent he has.

The tight end position promises to dazzle as well. Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer have been solid contributors this year as freshmen and both have all the physical tools to develop into big threats who take the pressure off Woods and Lee.

Running back Curtis McNeal returns, as do promising freshmen George Farmer and Amir Carlisle.

The offensive line has improved immensely as the year has progressed and will gain more continuity leading up to next season. Even if Matt Kalil declares for the draft, four starters return with multiple highly-touted recruits on their way.

All of the pieces are in place for Barkley to have one of the greatest years for a quarterback in USC history, a truly gaudy statistical season. As a four-year starter, he would own virtually all of USC’s passing records.

However, the biggest reason Barkley should come back isn’t because of the offense, it’s because of the overall team. As good as the offense looks on paper, the defense is in a similar position. A very strong nucleus of underclassmen has developed and promises to take this young defense to the next level.

Capping things off is the fact that Kiffin seems to finally have found the pulse of the team and overcome the steep learning curve of being the head coach of USC. He’s beginning to show that he is the right guy for the job and can bring the program through the “clouds” that he frequently describes.

Not only would this be the best a USC team has looked on paper in a few years, it would happen at just the right time in the Pac-12. SC’s main competition in the South division, Arizona State, is losing many seniors and will have to play the Trojans on the road next year. Stanford is unlikely to be at the top of the Pac without Luck and their two All-American offensive linemen. 

Oregon will likely stay very formidable, but the complexion of the team could change if LaMichael James turns pro. Most importantly, the Ducks will have to travel to the Coliseum.

Thus, the stage would be set for Barkley to provide a thrilling year. Of course, this would be different than any other thrilling year in USC history.

Ever since the program got slapped with the most severe NCAA penalties this side of the SMU death penalty, there has been a perception that the program is weakened. Some have rung a death knell on the glory days, already looking at the national potency of USC football as a thing of the past.

Barkley has a unique opportunity to turn the tide on the hand he was dealt and revitalize his beloved school. Were he to leave after this season, his time at USC would ultimately unfairly be defined by the sanctions the program had to go through and the opportunities he was forced to miss as a result.

The spark that has been ignited would be at risk of being extinguished.

However, if Barkley were to return, he would be leading a top-ranked team going through the third year of five years of punishments. The strength, vibrancy, and resolve of the USC program could be taken to an all-time high in this period of difficulty.

 Barkley would get the last laugh over the sanctions that have threatened to detract from his wonderful career. He and his fellow sanctioned troops would be able to declare victory.

He would be an effective bookend, carrying his program through the beginning of the sanctions and vaulting them to a wave of momentum they could ride until well after “the clouds” are gone for good.

If Barkley were to return and pull it off, he wouldn’t be the first Trojan to win a Heisman and national championship in the same year.

He would, however, go from “very special” to The Greatest Trojan of All Time.

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