Commentary

Should he stay or should he go?

USC, NFL have keen interest in Barkley's decision whether to play for Trojans in 2012

Updated: November 16, 2011, 2:13 PM ET
By Brian Kamenetzky | ESPN.com

As quotes go, it was an attention grabber:

"If I'm an NFL head coach right now, I'd pick Matt Barkley ahead of Andrew Luck," said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian.

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIIf he comes back ... quarterback Matt Barkley would enter his senior season at USC as an early Heisman favorite, the Trojans would be a strong pick in the Pac-12 and their youth combined with this season's success would make BCS bowl hopes realistic.

That's high praise for the Trojans junior quarterback, especially coming from the ex-USC assistant coach in this week's conference call as his Huskies prepare for Saturday's showdown with his former team at the Coliseum.

And that's the same Andrew Luck who has for so long been the prohibitive Heisman favorite, he could spend Stanford's final four games throwing the ball backward and still win the trophy. The same Andrew Luck who has made loss-seeking zealots of fans in many NFL markets. The same Andrew Luck who could push Peyton Manning out the door in Indianapolis. That guy.

Barkley laughed off Sarkisian's comments.

"He's just pouring the sugar on," Barkley said.

USC coach Lane Kiffin, who had his own moment of QB buttering before the Trojans hosted Stanford on Oct. 29, referring to Luck as "perfect," agreed. Still, Kiffin reiterated his belief the gap between the two signal-callers isn't large.

"The thing Andrew has over [Barkley] is he's faster and can make more plays running away from people," Kiffin said. "But I think, really, the rest of their game is extremely similar. The way they throw in the pocket, the way they throw on the move, how smart they are at the position."

"They're both no-brainers," he said.

Unlike Luck, Barkley wouldn't enter his senior season with the top pick in the 2013 NFL draft his to give away. But virtually everything else available to Luck could be Barkley's if, as Luck did a year earlier, he returns to USC.

Barkley would then enter his senior season as an early Heisman favorite. His team would be a strong pick in the Pac-12. The Trojans' youth combined with this season's success would make BCS bowl hopes realistic.

If he comes back.

The assumption, from media and Trojans faithful alike, is he won't. Todd McShay, of ESPN.com and Scouts Inc., ranks Barkley as the 18th best prospect for the 2012 NFL draft, while ESPN's Mel Kiper ranks him 10th. Both project him as the third quarterback selected, behind Luck and Oklahoma's Landry Jones. He would, by all expectations, go in the first round, and with a strong finish this season could rise to become its top end.

"

If I'm an NFL head coach right now, I'd pick Matt Barkley ahead of Andrew Luck.

" -- Washington coach Steve Sarkisian
But what if he stays? Measuring where the reward outweighs the risk is a tricky proposition.

Start with the knocks against him.

"[Barkley is] not really elite in any of the physical skills," McShay said. "His arm is adequate. He can make all the throws, but he's going to have to be great with his anticipation and timing of his throws in order to get out in front of some throws in the NFL. He has adequate size, but not elite size. He moves around in the pocket pretty well, but he's not an elite athlete, either."

USC can do a lot for quarterbacks -- just ask Matt Cassel -- but even four years at Heritage Hall can't make them taller. To compensate for merely adequate size, speed and athleticism, McShay said the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Barkley must "master his craft."

That he is doing.

"We've been really focusing on three things this year. Three areas that we grade: decision-making, timing and accuracy," USC quarterbacks coach Clay Helton said.

"You look at his decision-making; we judge that as touchdown-to-interception ratio. If you look at where he was as a freshman to a sophomore to now 28 touchdowns, six interceptions, that's a ratio you want."

Barkley has improved his TD/INT ratio from nearly 1-to-1 as a freshman to a nearly 4-to-1 mark heading into Saturday's game. In addition, his completion percentage -- at least partially a function of accuracy -- has increased in each of his three seasons. Meanwhile, his sack total has plummeted from 17 as a freshman to five this year.

"He's got a great time clock in his head right now about getting the ball out on time," Helton said. "Anticipating throws, and finding those open windows, getting it out, and not waiting for a guy to get open."

Kiffin and Helton also point to the improvement Barkley has made reading defenses, working through his progressions -- even down to a fourth or fifth option -- and his leadership skills.

Matt Barkley
Kirby Lee/US PresswireIf he leaves ... Barkley would, by all expectations, be selected in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft, perhaps as the third QB picked, behind Stanford's Andrew Luck and Oklahoma's Landry Jones.
These more technical aspects of the position -- ultimately what will raise Barkley's draft stock -- are aspects McShay believes are more important than ever.

"A guy like that has to win them over personality-wise, like [Mark] Sanchez did," McShay said. "He's got to walk into the room and have a presence about him, and then they're going to put him on the board and talk football with him for a half-hour."

"Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton, those guys weren't elite physically, but they have the mental and technically proficient, and won teams over on the board,'' he said. "You see how high they went compared to where they would have gone 10 years ago in the NFL draft. The intangibles and the mental makeup in a quarterback, it's so much more important then it ever has been before."

On the other hand, many believe one more season's worth of videotape gives scouts and player personnel chiefs that much more material to nitpick, including finding -- or even inventing -- flaws in Barkley's game.

Expectations next season, both for his performance and the Trojans as a team, would be extremely high should Barkley decide to come back. If the team thrives, he'll be rewarded. But if USC falls flat despite an end to the bowl ban and the presence of high-end targets such as Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, Barkley could suffer even if his numbers don't dip substantially.

The NFL's new rookie wage scale has removed much of the financial incentive for underclassmen to turn pro. In 2010, the gap in guaranteed money between the first and 10th picks was $32.5 million. From 11 to 21 it was $6.4 million.

In 2011, those figures were down to $10 million and about $3 million, respectively. That's hardly chump change, but the difference may be enough to reduce consequences (positive or negative) in staying another season.

Of course, a major injury changes that equation entirely.

Ultimately, Barkley's strengths as a quarterback would likely be enhanced by returning for one more run in Kiffin's pro-style offense, as would his ability to cope with his weaknesses.

At his position, generally speaking more experience helps. He'd gain that much more maturity, hone his leadership skills and -- oh, by the way -- enjoy one more potentially fruitful year of college ball with his teammates.

On a technical level, it seems unlikely Barkley would emerge after his fourth year as a weaker quarterback.

Whether he'd emerge a richer one is an open question.

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