Pressure's on Barkley to Prove Carroll's Decision Correct
Two national championships and seven consecutive Pac-10 titles (a league record), 11-win seasons, AP Top-4 finishes and BCS bowl appearances.
Throw in the fact that the Trojans have also produced three Heisman Trophy winners, along with a truckload of first-round draft picks every year, and it's easy to understand why any decisions Carroll makes with his program are rarely second-guessed.
With USC's 2009 season opener less than two weeks away, Carroll shocked the college football world when he named true freshman Matt Barkley as the team's starting quarterback last week.
A bold move for any coach, but especially for Carroll, who has a roster stocked with talented All-American-type players still waiting for their chance to get on the field, starting with third-year sophomore quarterback Aaron Corp (who was expected to take over the position after 2008 starter Mark Sanchez left early for the NFL) and fourth-year junior Mitch Mustain (who started and won eight games for Arkansas as a freshman in 2006 before transferring to USC).
"I was totally surprised with the decision and the timing of when it was made," said veteran USC radio analyst Paul McDonald, a 1979 All-America quarterback who led the Trojans to a national championship and consecutive Rose Bowl victories.
John Jackson, a former USC wide receiver who has worked as a Trojans commentator since Carroll arrived at USC and has followed Barkley since he was a freshman at Mater Dei, added: "It certainly caught me off guard.
"Even though there's no doubt about [Barkley's] potential, you have to wonder if [Carroll] is patient enough as a coach to deal with some of the mistakes that a freshman is going to make. It doesn't matter who the player is. It could be Matt Barkley or Matt Leinart. You just know mistakes are going to happen with a young player starting at the position for the first time."
For Barkley, a celebrated recruit from Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, being the main quarterback under the spotlight is nothing new. He was a four-year starter in high school who eagerly jumped into the USC quarterback mix when he enrolled early and began participating in the Trojans' spring practices in March.
"My mindset has not changed," Barkley said about dealing with the pressure of being USC's No. 1 quarterback so soon into his college career. "I feel that I'm ready. This is very similar to when I was a freshman in high school but on a much bigger stage.
"The thing is that we have such a good team with so much at stake. We know that we have a chance to win a national championship this year."
The turning point for Barkley came when Corp -- who was considered the No.1 quarterback at the end of spring workouts -- suffered a leg injury early in training camp.
With Corp sidelined because of a fractured tibia, Barkley stepped up when his workload with the first team offense increased, according to Carroll.
"Matt's been remarkable," Carroll said about Barkley, who is in line to become the first true freshman quarterback ever to start a season opener at USC. "He's just had a great introduction to Trojan football from the springtime all the way through everything we've done here. He's just done an exemplary job in every phase of everything. I can't explain how a guy this young and this new could do that, but he's done it. And it's been clear, and we have enough information.
"The opportunity that was presented to him when Aaron went down gave him an opportunity to see tons and tons of plays. He saw maybe twice as many plays as he would have seen otherwise. He got all of the work he could get against the ones, then he worked against the twos as well. So he has that experience behind him to show us whether he could hang with the speed of a pretty good defense and good, quality personnel on the other side. He handled all of it. I couldn't be more proud of this guy and what he's done to this point to position himself where he could take over right now. I'm fired up about it. I'm fired up for him. I'm fired up for our football team to see this happen."
On Saturday, USC held its final preseason scrimmage, which was conducted like a mock game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. With the Southern California heat tipping 100 degrees an hour before kickoff, a crowd of 6,000 battled the sun just to get a chance to witness Barkley in his new role as the Trojans' starting quarterback.
"That's why I'm here," said USC alum David Thomas, who has attended Trojans games for over three decades. "Like a lot of people, I was surprised that Matt was named the starter, but I figure with Pete Carroll's past quarterback experience, his opinion is trustworthy and I'm just going to go with it.
"The bottom line is that Corp got hurt at a crucial time, and I don't think he's close to being 100 percent. So, it only made sense for Barkley to be made the starter."
In leading USC's first-team offense against the Trojans' second-unit defense, Barkley did plenty of good things. He looked relaxed in the huddle and displayed a good command of the offense in completing 10-of-17 passes for 159 yards, including a four-yard touchdown throw to tight end Blake Ayles.
But there also were times when Barkley clearly showed his inexperience.
On his first scrimmage play, Barkley tripped coming away from center and forced a dangerous handoff that could have resulted into a turnover. And USC's opening drive did not end on a positive note, either, when Barkley stared down an out-route and had his pass deflected by defensive end Devon Kennard into the hands of defensive back Byron Moore for an interception.
"I thought he missed a couple of chances," Carroll said about Barkley's performance. "We misread a deep ball and I thought Devon Kennard made a great drop on that [interception]. [Barkley] also missed a post route that really is an easy shot for him that he'd hit nine out of 10 times."
But the more Barkley played, the more his confidence grew. And, this did not go unnoticed with his teammates.
"He's been a leader all of his life and it seems like his purpose on earth is to be a leader," wide receiver Brice Butler said about Barkley. "He's ready for this and he's used to this. This is nothing new to him.
"But you could see that as soon as he came here. You could tell that he was not going to be a guy following the crowd, doing what everyone else does. He's that guy who stands out. So it's easy to have confidence in him even after he makes a mistake. We see him as a pro quarterback in the making."
USC sophomore fullback D.J. Shoemate, who has known Barkley since grade school and competed against him in high school, agreed.
"Knowing Matt and his family personally, I've really gotten an opportunity to know what type of guy he is mentally and spiritually," Shoemate said. "He puts his faith in God a lot and that has allowed us to have a much deeper relationship. That's why I'm not surprised to see him in the situation that he is in. He's very focused and very driven. He's just one of those incredible athletes with so much talent, but he knows how to take advantage of the opportunity in front of him."
Listed in the USC media guide at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Barkley has enough size and arm strength to grow into a big-time college quarterback. However, most football experts point out that his biggest test will be improving his decision making on the field.
Barkley, who had 18 passes intercepted his senior season in high school, has struggled keeping the ball away from defenders since he joined the Trojans -- a problem Barkley flashed on Saturday with a couple of ill-advised throws into coverage.
"Overall, I thought that Matt did a good job managing the offense," McDonald said about Barkley's scrimmage performance. "He threw the ball crisply and seemed to be in control. Except for a couple of throws here or there, which is something that he will work out game by game as the season goes on. But overall, I think it was mission accomplished today.
"They wanted Matt to get into the flow of the game and he took most of the snaps for the first three quarters. He's a smart kid and it will clearly be a game-by-game experience for him this season."
Carroll, who has produced 33 first team All-Americans and 53 draft picks in eight seasons at USC, said he's prepared to go into the season with Barkley, mistakes and all.
"He's still growing into the position," Carroll said. "But when you think about it, how can he possibly be a finished product at this point? But we're kind of expecting it ... All quarterbacks have to stop trying so hard. They have to take and minimize the loss on a situation by not trying too hard. That will continue to be an issue whether it's with Matt or Aaron or anybody who plays for us."
Only time will tell if Carroll's gut decision on Barkley is the right one for 2009