Saturday I spent the afternoon in the broiling sun at the Los Angeles Coliseum, watching the USC Trojans’ final full-speed scrimmage before opening the season against San Jose State on September 5.
(No old media, hype-machine analysis from me after I eyeballed Barkley Sat.)
Why did I blow a perfect, sunny Saturday SoCal beach day for an afternoon in the bowels of the decrepit Coliseum? Earlier in the week, USC Coach Pete Carroll made the surprise announcement that true freshman Matt Barkley would start at QB for the Trojans in the home opener against SJSU. Carroll’s curious decision has made the largely-unknown Barkley the most buzzed-about college football player entering the season. And is also the reason 5,000 other folks fought with me for a spot in the shade under the Coli press box two days ago.
It’s pretty common knowledge here in SoCal how Barkley struggled his senior year at Orange County’s Mater Dei. He was picked off an astonishing 18 times in 2008, and his struggles have largely continued in fall camp with the Trojans. But despite that, Carroll announced last week that he was going with Barkley instead of junior Aaron Corp. Corp has shown considerably more polish at the position than Barkley, but clearly doesn’t have the upside potential of the rocket-armed freshman.
(Solace for SC Fans: at least the band, parking trolls were in midseason form)
So that’s where we stood as Barkley took his spot as starter last Saturday. He ended up handling 80% of the plays on the day, leading the first team and second team offense against a black-shirted scout team defense consisting of a rag tag collection of walk-ons and 3rd and 4th-stringers.
And to the surprise of no one, Barkley didn’t exactly blow away the competition.
With the scrimmage being open, the temperature in triple digits and gameday a week away, the Trojans ran as vanilla an offense as possible, so that’s something to consider when evaluating Barkley and Corp’s performance. Likewise the opposing defense was far from what the QBs will face most of the season.
So Barkley’s erratic performance Saturday made it all the more clear that he’s not ready to run a national title-contending college football offense against a top-flight defense. (See Ohio State in week two.) In fact, I don’t know if Barkley is even ready to lead the team against the competition San Jose State will provide on Saturday.
I know most of you haven’t seen Barkley play, so here’s his story: slightly undersized, at about 6-1 or so, but he’s got an Elway-type arm and very good feet. Extremely mobile and projects strength on the field. But in the 90 minutes he was on the field for Saturday’s scrimmage, I didn’t see him go through a receiver progression once. All of his completions, every single one, was either on a hot read or rollout-and-rip.
Again, I know USC wasn’t running much, but you would think Barkley would hold the ball in the pocket more than 2-3 seconds on at least a few occasions and read a coverage or two. But I didn’t see it happen.
Barkley did show flashes, completing a jaw-dropping 40-yard frozen rope to Ronald Johnson in the first half. (Johnson later broke his collarbone and is gone 6-to-8 weeks, a “crushing blow” as described by Carroll postgame.) And it’s clear he has the potential to be a dynamic playmaker at the position, but his decision-making was lacking throughout the day.
(Tanning bed-like conditions saw crowd cram into precious shade under pressbox)
For instance, twice while in the red zone and facing a heavy rush, Barkley lofted the ball up for grabs into blanket coverage in the end zone instead of just throwing the ball away. In contrast, later in the scrimmage Corp prevented a sack by quick dispensing the ball out of bounds.
It should be noted that Corp has been plagued by a slightly cracked fibula in fall camp, and has missed time. But his mobility during the scrimmage was such that he will definitely be able to play if called upon Saturday - something that would not surprise me at all.
So just exactly WHY is Barkley starting? There are a lot of theories being kicked around. One is that Carroll knows his defense this season won’t be as dominating as usual, so he wants a playmaking quarterback who can lead to more scoring. Likewise, USC doesn’t have any truly dominant skill position players on offense, so the Trojans need more than a game manager at QB -which describes Corp.
The last theory I heard came from an unnamed media member in L.A. who has covered USC football on a daily basis during Carroll’s entire tenure. Saturday he said to me that he thought that Carroll went with Barkley because he “wants his own (Tim) Tebow.”
He went on to say that Urban Meyer and Tebow are devout christians, as are Carroll and Barkley, and that Carroll’s desire to ramrod Barkley into the lineup as a freshman is a response to Meyer’s success with Tebow under similar circumstances.
Sounds contrived to me, but I haven’t been around Carroll every day since he arrived at USC - like the guy with the theory.
OK, prediction time: don’t be surprised to see Barkley really struggle against San Jose State this Saturday, with Corp relieving and leading USC to a win.
If that happens, Corp will start at Ohio State. I can see USC falling behind as Corp is unable to move the ball because of the general lack of dominant skill players on offense. Barkley will then be brought back in to finish the game as the Trojans lose.
And Corp won’t see the field the rest of the reason. Much like last year for Ohio State with how things played out between Terrelle Pryor and Todd Boeckmann.
After the OSU loss, Barkley will right himself a bit the next couple games against the sad sack Washington schools, and USC will eventually end up in a Holiday Bowl-ish postseason scenario.
Next season? Could be huge for Barkley, which is precisely the real reason I think Carroll is making this move now.