USC leans on Matt Barkley's leadership
The sophomore QB leads Trojans with traits Lane Kiffin noticed early on
Amid the swirling turmoil that has followed Lane Kiffin from the USC Trojans to the Oakland Raiders, to the Tennessee Volunteers and back again, a young quarterback has grown up and grown strong in his conviction that "everything happens for a reason."
That's what is keeping Matt Barkley focused and what gives Kiffin and the Trojans an optimism going into this season that, as these past months unfolded, didn't seem possible.
When Pete Carroll left abruptly in January, Barkley kept his team from panicking. Barkley, who was offered a scholarship by Kiffin as a 13-year-old, was the first to greet Kiffin when he arrived from his own stunned campus, offering a smile and a vote of confidence. And upon learning of the potentially devastating sanctions imposed on the program by the NCAA, Barkley rallied his teammates and found a way to keep the fight in "fight on," adopting an us-against-the-world mentality.
"The fact that we can still play," Barkley said about motivation, "the fact that we can still win and show the world that we're a team that wants to play football and wants to win. And that one institution can't tell us what our season is."
That Barkley happened to be the right man in the right place at the right time is not lost on Kiffin. He saw those qualities when Barkley was in ninth grade and offered him a scholarship on the spot, never knowing how much he would have to someday rely on his arm and his character.
"What he's gone through," Kiffin said, "at a school that has won seven straight conference championships. He's the starter and team goes 9-4, to go through that as a true freshman, then his coach leaves, then a new coach comes in and then sanctions hit and he's still in great shape.
"We are very fortunate to have him."
Barkley, who was voted a team captain, greeted Kiffin's assessment with a grin and a shrug.
"This is where I ended up," he said. "I was placed here for a reason, I just believe that. I'm just gonna deal with it."
No doubt he has had a few bad moments since Carroll left for the Seahawks last January. A lot of people have. But somewhere along the way Barkley chose to shape his view of all that was happening and turn it into something positive.
Two years ago the Barkleys spent Christmas in South Africa volunteering at an orphanage. When Matt went to USC, they figured family Christmas trips were over for a while because of bowl season. But as soon as the sanctions were handed out and bowls weren't an option, they began planning again. They're hoping to spend this Christmas at an orphanage in Nigeria. The Barkleys have said South Africa was the best Christmas they ever shared.
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"Trips like these are more of a blessing for us than those we go to serve," Matt's father, Les, said recently, something to which Matt readily agrees.
Matt Barkley's leadership and faith have guided him since he was a child. Had there been a lesser man running his team, Kiffin knows he'd be in trouble right now trying to keep the Trojans together. What Barkley did not only kept players from jumping ship (although eight did transfer, mainly because they knew they could get more playing time somewhere else), but he instilled an even stronger pride in those who stayed.
His attitude has been contagious. Backup quarterback Mitch Mustain could have gone just about anywhere and started. So could wide receiver Ronald Johnson. Both wanted a USC degree and Johnson figures he'll prepare for the NFL combine with the time he would have otherwise spent preparing for a bowl game. Same with center Kris O'Dowd. And linebacker Chris Galippo. And tight end Jordan Cameron.
Kiffin has impressed upon his players that the reason they choose USC isn't for bowl games or even national championships; it's to get a degree and improve as a player for a chance to go to the next level.
"Most of our players are four- and five-star recruits," he said. "They've got bigger things in mind."
And that goes for Barkley, too, who as a sophomore didn't have the option of transferring without sitting out a season. He said he never considered it.
To be sure, Barkley and his teammates have kept the band together. Boosters thinking about dropping their donations have reconsidered. They, like the rest of the country, want to see what happens, whether this group of talented players will rise or fail in the face of adversity. There are many who would love nothing more than to see the latter.
Barkley will do his best to disappoint them.Shelley Smith is a reporter for ESPN.