Matt Barkley grows into his position
USC QB is quickly becoming the leader everyone expected on and off the field
LOS ANGELES -- Shortly after USC's final game, right after he hands in his last final exam, Matt Barkley has plans for unwinding from the rigors of a stressful football season and semester. He's going to sit on an airplane for about 24 hours, travel to a remote area of West Africa, roll up his sleeves and dig until he strikes water.
He'll spend his Christmas break putting in a well and running sports camps for hundreds of orphans around Jos, Nigeria. It's a remote place where hundreds of people died earlier this year in violent clashes between Christians and Muslims. He's going with his family: his dad, Les; his mom, Bev; and the 18-year-old twins, Sam and Lainy.
The Trojans' sophomore quarterback suddenly had some open space on his day planner when the NCAA made USC ineligible for a bowl game this season and next.
"It's a good perspective for Matt to have," Les Barkley said recently on USC's practice field. "As stressful as all this can seem -- the football, the schoolwork, the scrutiny from the media and fans -- look how good we have it."
About 15 minutes after Les Barkley said that, a double rainbow arced over downtown Los Angeles, set off by puffy dark clouds. A cool breeze broke up days of oppressive heat on campus. It was hard to argue. The Barkleys have done this kind of thing before. Just before he showed up for spring football at USC in 2009, Matt spent time with his family helping orphans in the Cape Flats area of South Africa. That trip was organized by the family's Costa Mesa church, Rock Harbor. In the days after the Haiti earthquake, Les traveled there with a group of Orange County rescue workers.
Before you go off thinking they went looking for publicity about their charitable efforts, realize that I had to practically beg the family for permission to write about their trips. Les Barkley and I went back and forth via text message one day earlier this week. To publicize a mission like theirs is contrary to the Barkleys' notion of service in their faith.
"As someone who's been given a lot, I think it's my duty to give back," Matt Barkley said.
Faith is near the center of Matt Barkley's life, but he isn't one of those young athletes who slips it into his interviews at every possible opportunity. That's by design.
"People are almost hypocritical with it, with all the tattoos and crosses and bible verses on their arms," Barkley said. "They don't really live it out. I am very confident with what I believe. It's not like I shy away from saying I believe in Jesus and all that stuff. It just seems it's a little overdone. Some people don't take it seriously."
We sometimes seem to expect more moral leadership from our quarterbacks than we do from our politicians nowadays. The world probably doesn't have much to fear, and could have plenty to gain, from Matt Barkley.
"He's always been a big leader by example, just in the way he leads his life and the way he conducts himself, on the field, off the field, whatever," said USC walk-on receiver Robbie Boyer, who is Barkley's first cousin and was his high school teammate. "I think where he's grown a lot is in being vocal out here."
After practice, when players are finally free to disperse after hours of weightlifting, meetings and practice, Barkley heads upstairs to watch practice film. Sometimes, teammates Stanley Havili, Rhett Ellison and Ronald Johnson are in the room. Other times, he's all alone with a DVD player and a TV screen.
"You only get 13 weeks to put all your effort in," Barkley said. "If you put the work in now, afterwards you can go out or whatever."
Spoken like your average college sophomore, right? Les Barkley remembers the day, before the sixth grade, when Matt told him he wanted to play football. He asked him what position.
"Hey, you do realize there's only one QB," Les recalls asking. "OK, but you're going to need to work really hard."
Those who watch Barkley closely see a different level of confidence and maturity in year two. His dad sometimes turns on the radio, hears his kid being interviewed and thinks, "Hey, I know that voice." His teammates sense a new assertiveness.
"Matt's a lot more comfortable around us. At first, he was young, he had the jitters and wasn't really sure if he needed to raise his voice, or if he should," USC center Kristofer O'Dowd said. "There are moments when you need to. That young side of Matt, I don't think of him like that anymore."
Through four games, Barkley's numbers suggest he is growing into the position. Last year, he was the first true freshman quarterback to start a USC opener in the program's 122-year history. He completed 59.9 percent of his passes, threw 15 touchdowns and had 14 interceptions. This year, he has completed 65.1 percent of his passes, thrown for 12 touchdowns and four interceptions.
The coming weeks will be a stern test for USC and throw a brutal series of comparisons at Barkley, who turned 20 about three weeks ago. Saturday the Trojans face Washington, a rebuilding program that has one of the most athletic, strong-armed quarterbacks in the nation, Jake Locker. The following week, they travel to Stanford, which has Andrew Luck, a player who looks as if he were built in a laboratory to quarterback an NFL offense.
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Both Locker and Luck are viewed as early first-round draft picks, something Barkley hopes to be -- perhaps as soon as the spring of 2011. He has known Locker for years and met Luck and Arizona's Nick Foles at ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, Conn., part of the Pac-10 media days.
It seems a bit premature to talk about the draft right now, but is it ever? A lot of USC fans already are wondering how long Barkley will stick around. Will he follow the path of Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart and stay for his senior year or follow Mark Sanchez and leave as a junior? All four of those guys are from Orange County and all four of them have advised Barkley at some point.
Barkley said he'll face that decision when he's eligible, after the 2011 season, but he did hint that the possibility of competing for a national championship -- something the NCAA has barred USC from doing for the next two seasons -- could be a carrot.
"You never know, I might want to get a championship when we're eligible," Barkley said.
Before then, his goal is to win every game. Thus far, the Trojans (4-0) have wobbled at times but managed to do that as they enter the meaty part of the schedule.
Some people wondered whether Barkley would transfer once the sanctions were announced in June. According to Matt and Les, the issue never came up. He has reasons, emotional and pragmatic, for wanting to stay at USC. His cousin, Boyer, for one. Les Barkley was an All-American water polo player at USC.
Each of USC's past four starting quarterbacks -- and one four-year backup -- is now in the NFL. Concepts from the New Orleans Saints, Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders are incorporated into USC's offense.
"They're preparing us like an NFL program," Barkley said. "They're treating us like professionals, not allowing us to be late or anything to slip by. That mindset, regardless of the football part, is to get you ready for the NFL."
Until then, Barkley is getting a good taste of both the light and dark sides of being the quarterback under a spotlight. He ranks second in the Pac-10 after Luck in passing efficiency but has been questioned extensively about the four interceptions he has thrown in the past two games. Les often winces from the things he hears people yell at the Coliseum.
"I think people are always going to find those negatives and see what you have to say about them," Matt Barkley said. "My goal is to not give them anything to talk about."
Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.