What Legacy, If Any, Does USC's Matt Barkley Leave?
Matt Barkley’s college football career is over. His final appearance as a collegiate athlete will feature him taking center stage…from the sidelines, sans helmet and shoulder pads.
An injury to his throwing shoulder—which he suffered against UCLA on November 17—is still plaguing him, and doctors have ruled him out of USC's game against Georgia Tech in Monday’s Sun Bowl.
Barkley confirmed this through his personal Twitter account, while keeping the same positive voice he has maintained during ups and downs throughout his four seasons at USC:
Doctors haven’t cleared me to play, so I won’t be suiting up on Saturday. I’ll be here with my team to finish strong. Proud to be a Trojan!— Matthew Barkley (@MattBarkley) December 27, 2012
It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
In sports, this is a phrase we use far too often, although we’ve grown accustomed to the disappointment. Our expectations rarely match what actually happens, and the hype typically outweighs the real-life results.
In the case of Barkley, however, it’s not as cut and dry. Many will sprint to the nearest tower to yell “overrated!” while mulling over his elite recruiting buildup and the sparkly hardware that went unattained. And while his legacy at the school falls short of what many predicted, referring to his career as simply “disappointing” doesn’t do justice to the player.
The first time I ever watched Barkley play a full game was actually before college, when he was featured on ESPN as the next golden arm to emerge from Mater Dei High School. A televised high school game was a big deal back then (the good old days, a few years ago), and Barkley had recruiting hype flying.
His mechanics were superb, and you could easily see why so many outlets loved him. He had the look and feel of a future NFL star—even then—and yet, in a game where he threw for a ton of yards and showcased his talents, he also tossed three interceptions and his team lost.
At the time, it was just one game before we officially knew where he was headed. Review his entire college resume, however, and the same theme carries through. Flashes of brilliance, incredible production, some magnificent mistakes, and a piece of the puzzle strangely absent.
As a starter, Barkley finishes his college career with a 34-13 record at USC, plus passing yards and touchdown records at a school with a rich quarterback tradition. He also became the first Pac-12 QB to throw for more than 100 touchdown passes.
His 122 total touchdowns and 48 interceptions certainly tell a story of production, but so does the fact that his lone postseason win came against Boston College in the 2009 Emerald Bowl.
The NCAA sanctions played a major role in this, of course, and the Trojans’ bowl absence in both 2010 and 2011 also should be factored in when evaluating his career. Although Barkley had nothing to do with these sanctions, he felt the impact more than anyone.
His 2011 season was brilliant, and his 10 wins, 39 touchdowns and only eight interceptions made him the Heisman favorite heading into 2012. His presence, along with a superb duo of wideouts to throw to, also pegged USC as No. 1 in the country heading into the fall.
But it was not to be.
Although Barkley’s touchdown numbers were similar to the prior year despite playing in one less game, his interceptions more than doubled and he was sacked nearly twice as often. You could certainly pinpoint some of these struggles on his offensive line—former USC left tackle Matt Kalil was drafted fourth overall by the Vikings in April’s draft—but it would be reckless to place the increased turnovers solely on a lack of protection.
Much like the team in general, Barkley looked sloppy at times this year. The knock on him has always been as a downfield thrower, and at times the critics seemed spot on. He was inaccurate and careless with the football, and these mistakes will likely hit him where it hurts most.
Had he come out like his left tackle, Barkley almost certainly would have been a top draft pick. He came back because of "unfinished business," however, and while it’s impossible to determine where he’ll end up following the scouting silliness, his reputation as a quarterback took a tremendous hit. I will never, ever knock a player for staying in school, but the situation is what it is.
He will not have one more game to showcase his talent to scouts, and he’ll instead focus on rehab and get ready for the taxing, pre-draft gauntlet. As for us, we’re left wondering what to make of the gaudy statistics and not much to show for it.
This was not another 5-star recruit that didn’t live up to all those stars, however. Barkley was certainly worthy of the high praise coming in, and he’ll leave with his name attached to various records.
We speak of a lack of Heismans and BCS bowl wins in his trophy case as if these items are easy to capture. When your name is taken out of consideration for these for half of your career, suddenly the conversation changes. The sanctions aren’t an excuse for empty hands but it does warrant consideration.
In truth, and as much as it pains me to say it, Barkley’s legacy as a quarterback won’t be defined by what he did at USC. There’s no denying the talent, although it’s now up to the scouts to determine how this will translate at the next level. It’ll then be up to him to produce wherever the draft may take him.
His records will likely stand for quite some time, but the accumulated totals don’t tell the whole story. The fact that we’ll be left talking only about the numbers and not the player, a miraculous moment, or the defining games of his career is what makes this so difficult to grasp.
Unfinished business will be left behind.
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