USC got a look at what its offense might look like without starting quarterback Matt Barkley during the spring game. The verdict? Not too shabby.
With Barkley sidelined by a bruised hand, Mitch Mustain threw five touchdown passes while completing 19 of 29 for 299 yards to lead his team to victory.
While ESPN's College Football Live rates Barkley as "irreplaceable," the Trojans coaches doesn't seem too worried about the prospect of potentially turning to Mustain, a fifth-year senior.
"We'd be very comfortable," quarterbacks coach Clay Helton said.
Mustain is probably the nation's best known backup quarterback. He went 61-2 at Springdale (Ark.) High School and was named the 2005 Gatorade, USA Today and Parade Magazine National Player of the Year before becoming the biggest recruit in Arkansas history. He went 8-0 as a true freshman starter, yet things turned sour between Mustain and Razorbacks coach Houston Nutt -- let's just say it was complicated -- and Mustain opted to transfer to USC.
The Trojans offered a new start, but Mustain couldn't manage to win the starting job after sitting out a season, per transfer rules. He first served as Mark Sanchez's backup in 2008 and then failed to beat out Barkley last fall. He saw limited action in 2008 -- he passed for 157 yards with two TDs and two interceptions -- but didn't throw a pass last year and was a mostly a forgotten man under coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates.
With the arrival of new coach Lane Kiffin, however, the message was no job was safe. Even Barkley's.
"Mustain really wanted to come and compete and show that he's a big-time quarterback who can help the team in any way," Helton said. "We were very proud of the way Mitch responded during the spring."
While few expected Mustain to beat out Barkley, who emerged as a clear No. 1 when spring practices ended, he impressed the coaching staff, Helton said.
"I thought he really put in the extra effort and the extra time of really understanding the system," he said. "We're extremely pleased with him."
The good news is that Mustain's game experience likely means he won't be too wide-eyed if he's needed to step in for an injured Barkley. The bad news is that he's the last line of defense -- or offense. This spring, after Aaron Corp opted to transfer to Richmond, he and Barkley were the only two scholarship QBs on the roster, though James Boyd was moved from defensive end to fortify depth. In the fall, touted freshman Jesse Scroggins arrives, but turning to a true freshman quarterback is rarely a good thing in the Pac-10.
If Barkley is lights out and doesn't get hurt, it seems unlikely that Mustain will see much playing time. His future hope, of course, is to copy the path of Matt Cassel, Matt Leinart's backup at USC, who signed a six-year, $63 million contract in July 2009 with the Kansas City Chiefs.
But Helton isn't writing off Mustain.
"I think he is going to be a guy who definitely helps us in his last year," he said.