LOS ANGELES (AP) — While most of the nation’s elite college quarterbacks prepared for bowl games during last year’s Christmas break, Matt Barkley went to Nigeria. The Southern California star spent 11 days on a church-sponsored humanitarian mission, doing construction work and distributing supplies, including a few soccer balls.
Although Barkley has one of his sport’s highest-profile jobs, that profile doesn’t currently include bowl games, thanks to NCAA sanctions. So Barkley made the most of what could be his final significant break from football until he retires from the NFL.
“The whole Africa trip was a chance to get away and not worry about football, to get my mind off all the games we could have played in,” Barkley said.
Barkley isn’t the type to lament missed opportunities, and he doesn’t acknowledge any disappointment in what’s happened since he got his childhood dream job. Although Barkley is heading into his third season as No. 25 USC’s starter, he’s playing for a team whose season will end Nov. 26 — and he’s getting only a fraction of the national attention afforded to Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez before him during the Trojans’ decade of dominance.
NCAA sanctions are part of the reason Barkley isn’t a household name, but Andrew Luck is a bigger part. While Barkley has been almost everything the Trojans expected when he arrived as the nation’s top recruit, he isn’t even considered the best quarterback in his state, not with Luck setting records and making NFL scouts salivate up at Stanford.
“What guy? Who are we talking about?” Barkley asked with a grin when asked about Luck.
Barkley clearly doesn’t care about the level of his national profile heading into the final year of USC’s bowl ban. He’s more interested in being a leader, both on the field and as the public face of USC’s players during their punishment for misdeeds committed before they arrived on campus.
“Matt is the guy who keeps us level, keeps us solid,” said receiver Robert Woods, poised for a breakout season of his own. “He’s our leader out there and in the locker room, and we’re all here to help him out.”
Barkley leads the Trojans into the Coliseum for Saturday’s season opener against Minnesota as a veteran leader. He barks at teammates in practice these days after mistakes, and he’s emerging as a vocal proponent for coach Lane Kiffin — and even an occasional source of humor.
“It’s more fun to joke around with the defensive guys now, knowing my words have a little more validity,” Barkley said.
There’s another reason Barkley isn’t yet the most famous athlete in Los Angeles who doesn’t wear the Lakers’ No. 24 jersey: While Barkley has been a solid, steady performer during his first two seasons at USC, he has rarely been spectacular. During his two seasons at USC, he’s 17-7 as a starter — very good, but not great.
Although he won at Ohio State as a freshman, Barkley threw 15 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions. USC’s win over Boston College in the 2009 Emerald Bowl is his only postseason appearance, and he won’t get another unless he returns for his senior year.
Most of Barkley’s shortcomings are inextricably connected to NCAA penalties, coaching upheaval and his teammates’ play — all factors outside Barkley’s control. Yet he acknowledges he “trailed off” as a quarterback down the stretch of his first two seasons, notably throwing eight interceptions in his final five games last year — double his total in his first seven games of the season.
“As you look at what he did last year in the touchdown-interception ratio, (Barkley) improved a lot there,” Kiffin said. “Now we need to go to the next level. He can have one of those seasons like we’ve seen before with Carson, Leinart, John David (Booty), Mark Sanchez — have one of those elite seasons coming up this season.”
So Barkley went to work on his accuracy during offseason workouts, developing chemistry with his enviably talented receiving corps while studying Kiffin’s offense. He also made a few minor adjustments to his throwing motion, concentrating on holding the ball higher to produce more consistent throws.
“I’m always tweaking little things to make it perfect, and I’ve never thrown the perfect ball,” Barkley said. “I guess that long offseason helped me focus on it. There’s always something else I can do. … Always, to raise the (completion) percentage is a goal, and 70 percent seems like a realistic goal.”
Barkley says he hasn’t decided whether to return for his senior season, but it seems fairly clear he’ll leave USC if he’s a certain first-round pick, as everybody currently assumes. Barkley recently told the Los Angeles Times he’s hoping “to put myself in a position to go out with a bang.”
Barkley, who turns 21 next week, has been in a hurry for his entire football career. After starting for four seasons at Orange County’s Mater Dei High School, he graduated a semester early to enroll at USC, where he’s already an academic senior in communications.
If Barkley is headed into his final season at USC, he wants to master the art of finishing strong.
“Nobody is thinking beyond this season to 2012 or anything,” Barkley said. “We want to win every game we play this year, and our legacies will come out of that.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)