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Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Updated: July 28, 2:37 PM ET
Matt Barkley has some career options

By Mark Saxon
ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- Matt Barkley is taking a class this summer, in between workouts and beach volleyball, which have helped tone his body and darken his tan. So by the time he's under center against Minnesota in about six weeks, he will be a senior at USC even though he's listed as a junior on the Trojans' roster.

Matt Barkley
Matt Barkley could choose to return for a senior season in 2012.

Throw that into the jumble of competing pulls on one of the best college quarterbacks in the nation. Return for his fourth season of eligibility, when the NCAA shroud finally lifts and USC is eligible for a bowl game again, or get it over with and start what many people think will be a noteworthy NFL career? Does he follow Mark Sanchez or Andrew Luck?

USC coach Lane Kiffin was nudging Barkley in Luck's direction Tuesday at Pac-12 media day, staged under a blazing sun in West L.A.

"I'm trying to get them to hang out today," Kiffin said.

Kiffin knows what he's up against. He grew up around the NFL and was the head coach of the Oakland Raiders for a year and a half. Luck and Barkley are viewed as the two best quarterback prospects in the nation. If you watched the USC-Stanford game last year, you probably had a moment when you realized you were watching two future pros. In the clutch, neither defense had an answer for two pro-style offenses being run nearly to perfection.

But it's not all about what happens on the field when teams are planning for the draft and Barkley might get better marks in interviews than workouts. He could be the Tim Tebow of the 2012 draft, only starting higher on the board.

"Some of it is his character. Commissioner [Roger] Goodell has done a lot with discipline," Kiffin said. "A lot of teams are more worried about that than they were five or 10 years ago. You get an A-plus-plus in that category, you can be the face of the franchise and teams know you're going to represent them."

Not that Barkley doesn't have tangible assets that the NFL wants. Scouts rave about his footwork. His sense of calm in the pocket, which can be a frantic, frightening place, is rare. He improved his completion percentage, threw 11 more touchdowns and two fewer interceptions from his freshman to sophomore years.

"You can tell he's an incredibly confident player now," Luck said. "He handles their offense like a pro. He makes all the throws. It's frustrating to play against him because you'll think you have him and there he goes or he gets to the right check or whatever. I think he's an unbelievable quarterback."

Most informed people have assumed since Barkley arrived from Orange County that it would be a three-year stop on his path toward the NFL, something he's been training for since middle school. That's not the same thing, of course, as saying it's a lock.

His dad, Les, is a successful Newport Beach businessman, so financial pressures appear to be minimal. He's got a chance to pass Carson Palmer at the top of USC's career passing lists with two more good years. And isn't part of it wanting to matter at your school? Up to now, through no fault of his own, Barkley has played his college career in a vacuum.

Die-hard USC fans have followed it through this dark valley, but the nation hasn't exactly been transfixed through the Emerald Bowl season and two years under a postseason ban. The newfangled conference is generating a lot of buzz (and revenue), but even if USC dominates the South division, its season still ends across from UCLA at the Coliseum on Nov. 26.

Instead of basking in the glory of a town that makes an industry of it, like Palmer, Matt Leinart and Sanchez got to do, Barkley's career has mirrored that of Brodie Croyle when Alabama was under sanctions. Stick around for one more year and Barkley could be remembered as part of USC's rebirth, not the face of its low point.

He tries to be optimistic about this season, saying it feels different, but it's hard to imagine it will feel all that different in December, when the rest of the talented offenses are game-planning for bowl games and Barkley, Robert Woods and the rest have nothing to look forward to other than finals.

People who have seen Barkley for a while thought he looked different in the spring, less forgiving of mistakes by his teammates, more intense. Maybe he's trying to squeeze the most he can from the remaining three-plus months of college football. He seems to be searching for that moment of clarity, but you wonder if it will ever arrive.

"Whether I leave or not, I want to make it an easy decision," Barkley said Tuesday. "If I want to go, I know I gave it my best and I'm in a good position to leave. If I want to stay, then that's my decision and so be it."

Kiffin will keep an anxious eye all year on Barkley, but also on his classmates, who include defensive end Nick Perry, offensive tackle Matt Kalil and safety T.J. McDonald, all of whom Kiffin considers first-round talents.

"They have a lot to figure out," Kiffin said. "Do they all go, do they all stay, do some of them go?"

When those questions start to get answered, we'll have an idea of whether USC football will start to matter again at the very moment it's allowed to.

Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com.