Less gush, more push for USC’s Matt Barkley
Flush from a USC victory, Pete Carroll stood outside the cramped locker room at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley last October and shocked the assembled media.
Quarterback Matt Barkley, the then- Trojans coach gushed, was playing “as good of football as anybody we have ever had, already.”
Barkley, a true freshman, had played all of four college games.
Carroll, reminded that Barkley was the latest in a line of Trojans quarterbacks that includes Heisman Trophy winners and top-10 NFL draft picks, later acknowledged that there was “probably a little euphoria” in his proclamation.
Reality set in over the next nine games as Barkley finished the season with 15 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions, including two of each in the Trojans’ Emerald Bowl victory over Boston College.
It turned out to be the last game of the nine-season Carroll era.
Enter Lane Kiffin, who succeeded his mentor with the Trojans after Carroll bolted for the Seattle Seahawks, taking play-caller and quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates with him.
In his seven months on the job, USC’s coach has yet to refer to his quarterback as an “outlier,” as Carroll did. Nor has he called him “Barks.”
Instead, he put Barkley on a diet. He directed quarterbacks to run laps after interceptions or fumbles in practice. And he held Barkley publicly accountable for mistakes during scrimmages.
Which is not to say that Kiffin is any less enamored with his quarterback.
He’s just not mushy about it.
“I’ve been positive with him because he’s given me no reason not to,” Kiffin said. “He’s been great since the first day we got here.”
Kiffin’s relationship with Barkley, and how it translates into performance, will be one of the intriguing story lines when USC begins its season and the Kiffin era Thursday at Hawaii.
Barkley could conceivably develop into one of the best quarterbacks in USC history, joining Heisman winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. He might eventually be drafted higher than Mark Sanchez, the No. 5 overall pick in 2009, whose decision to leave for the pros with a season of eligibility remaining helped pave the way for Barkley to become the first true freshman to start for the Trojans.
But right now he’s a second-year starter coming off consecutive scrimmages that included interception returns for touchdowns.
And Barkley is still getting to know a coach he met in the spring of 2006 after his freshman season at Santa Ana Mater Dei High.
Kiffin, the Trojans’ co-offensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator at the time, offered Barkley a scholarship but was gone well before he arrived on campus. Four years later, after tenures with the Oakland Raiders and at Tennessee, Kiffin not only runs the Trojans’ offense but the entire operation.
“When I’m up there in the coaches’ offices, I’ll just drop in to say, ‘Hi’ or ask him about a play or something — just things to try and get to know him on a better level than just Xs and O’s,” Barkley said.
Barkley and Kiffin said that forging a close relationship was essential.
“Given the fact that’s he’s offensive coordinator calling the plays, we need to be on the same page,” Barkley said. “You need to have that relationship of trusting each other and knowing each other’s moves.”
Said Kiffin: “He has to be my voice. You really get going [as an offense] when he becomes you in a sense.”
Kiffin learned the power of connecting with a quarterback last season at Tennessee, where he helped much-maligned senior Jonathan Crompton develop into a fifth-round pick of the San Diego Chargers.
Kiffin described the personal satisfaction gained from nurturing Crompton and his confidence “really eye-opening.”
Barkley offers a different challenge.
“You’re talking about the other end of the spectrum,” Kiffin said. “Matt’s the golden child here. Even though he went through some ups and downs, he still started as a true freshman and did some really good things.”
Kiffin, however, began molding Barkley shortly after he was hired in January, advising the quarterback to reduce body fat to improve mobility.
By the opening of spring practice, the 6-foot-2 Barkley had dropped 10 pounds and was noticeably more lean and agile.
“He’s one of the most self-driven players I’ve been around, and he wants to be the best quarterback in the country,” quarterbacks coach Clay Helton said. “You see the success of Mark Sanchez, with the great feet that he has and how that has transferred to the NFL; Matt wanted the same thing.”
Kiffin also has encouraged Barkley to be more assertive in the huddle. As a freshman, Barkley was sometimes tentative about giving orders to older, more experienced players.
“I would think it through too much and not say anything at all, which was probably a good thing at times,” he said. “I’m still only a sophomore, but I’m confident now that no matter what I say it’s going to have that influence, that there’s validity behind it.”
Senior center Kristofer O’Dowd has noticed the maturation.
“For a pup, for a freshman, he did the best he could do,” O’Dowd said. “Now, in the huddle he’s confident. He brings energy.”
Barkley, of course, also possesses a strong arm.
Kiffin, however, is not making any predictions or over-the-top pronouncements about Barkley just yet.
“We definitely would like to have a playbook that is not limited with him,” Kiffin said. “And I think we can.”