Didn't it seem like Matt Barkley was on top of the world last summer? If it did, that's because he was.
The Golden Boy was a folk hero before taking his first collegiate snap. Highly heralded coming out of high school, he was named the USC starting quarterback early in fall camp. And in just his second start, the handsome freshman played through pain and engineered a late touchdown drive that gave his Trojans a huge road win at Ohio State.
And although the Trojans suffered through a very un -USC-like season, Barkley did lead his squad to other meaningful road triumphs at Notre Dame and California, as well as a bowl win and a 9-4 record. The future looked bright for Barkley and his coach, Pete Carroll.
But then the dominoes started falling and Barkley is suddenly in a tough spot.
His top running backs at the beginning of the season, Joe McKnight and Stafon Johnson, won't be returning next season. McKnight announced Friday that he'll skip his senior season and Johnson has no eligibility left.
McKnight is the latest USC athlete to find himself embroiled in controversy. After saying around Thanksgiving that he expected to return for his senior season, news hit that McKnight was spotted rolling a Land Rover registered to his girlfriend's boss, a possible NCAA violation.
Of course McKnight insists the ongoing investigation had nothing to do with his decision, but considering the Reggie Bush probe is still open five years later and a dark cloud hangs over the men's basketball program, one can't help but think McKnight is just getting out before the NCAA lowers the boom.
Which is what Carroll is trying to do, it appears. As of mid-morning Saturday, the coach who can't seem to stay away from the NFL appeared poised to accept a $7-million-a-year offer to become both coach and president of the Seattle Seahawks. If Carroll does bolt, it's expected that he'd take Barkley's quarterbacks coach, Jeremy Bates, with him to Seattle.
Star wideout and punt returner Damian Williams also announced Friday that he'll skip his senior year, but that's less of a surprise than McKnight's decision. Williams, a transfer from Arkansas who already has earned his degree from USC, was named the team MVP in just his second season as a Trojan.
There was also some talk last month that disgruntled back C.J. Gable, a frequent visitor to Carroll's doghouse, was considering turning pro, but if Carroll leaves, perhaps Gable will return. He and Allen Bradford, and lesser-known Marc Tyler, would be the front-runners to man the often-crowded USC backfield in 2010.
Even Barkley's backup, Aaron Corp, is leaving . But hold your laughter; he's not going to the NFL early. Corp is headed to the University of Richmond, where he won't be required to sit for a year—he already did that this season—because the Spiders compete at the Division I-AA level.
If you're tired of hearing about USC quarterbacks, then don't watch today's NFL playoff game between the Bengals and Jets (NBC, 4:30 pm ET). Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer won the 2002 Heisman Trophy as a Trojan and Jets' rookie QB Mark Sanchez led USC to a 12-1 record and a Rose Bowl win last season.
If Carroll leaves, it's logical to think USC will bring in an offensive-minded coach to mentor the franchise Barkley. Carroll is a masterful recruiter, so losing him will certainly loosen the stranglehold he's had on area blue-chippers, a development that wouldn't bother UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel one bit.
But on name alone, USC is still the top brand in talent-rich Los Angeles, and it seems reasonable to assume the Trojans will remain solid in the near-term, but they certainly won't enjoy the new decade the way they owned the 2000s . I expect Barkley to continue his maturation and development regardless of who his coach is.
This will become more of a life lesson than a football lesson for the young star, and Barkley will keep doing what he does best, throwing the football and positioning himself to be an NFL quarterback.