LOS ANGELES — Matt Barkley is grateful to see new coach Lane Kiffin and his assistants on the field at Southern California this week.
The sophomore quarterback and senior Mitch Mustain were getting tired of running practices all by themselves.
“There’s a lot more organization now,” Barkley said. “In the summer, it’s me and Mitch telling everybody what to do.”
Barkley and his backup took more than the usual leadership roles this year while the Trojans’ NCAA woes shook the program. Although the Trojans have two bowl-free seasons ahead of them due to those crippling sanctions, Barkley has been a steady voice of optimism and maturity — and he still won’t turn 20 until next month.
Barkley said he never considered leaving USC. Instead, he urged his teammates to stick around with phone calls and cajoling. And during voluntary workouts this summer, Barkley and Mustain put their teammates through workouts with a constant urgency to keep the Trojans near the top despite the sanctions that have reduced their numbers.
“We’re all dedicated to this school, to this team and to getting our educations from USC,” Barkley said. “That USC degree is something that everybody on this team should want. Even if the appeal doesn’t (work) and we can’t get a bowl game next year, that degree is something we’ll have for the rest of our lives.”
Barkley’s steady presence injects hope into the Trojans, even if his freshman season wasn’t exactly a stunner. After moving up from Newport Beach and immediately becoming Pete Carroll’s starter as a freshman, Barkley struggled for long stretches of the Trojans’ 9-4 campaign, throwing 15 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions.
Barkley dedicated himself to improvement in the offseason, losing 10 pounds mostly by improving his cardiovascular conditioning. The quarterback also consciously worked on becoming a leader for the Trojans, both in the locker room and in the media.
Barkley represented USC at the Pac-10 media day last week, answering countless questions about the sanctions’ impact on the Trojans’ morale and motivation. He expressed regret at the notion of missing bowl games and losing the chance to play for the BCS title for the next two years, but looked forward to the possibility of getting back in the race in 2012.
“So you’re announcing that you’re staying for your senior year, so that you’ll be able to do that?” Kiffin said with a smirk.
“Yeah, we’ll see,” Barkley replied. “Hopefully.”
USC’s reputation has taken a beating in the past few years, reducing a tradition of seven straight Pac-10 titles and two national championships into an asterisk-laden chapter of the media guide. While new school president Max Nikias works to repair that reputation under squeaky-clean new athletic director Pat Haden, Barkley knows he can make an important contribution by becoming a spokesman for his team.
“I knew that would be one of my goals for this season,” Barkley said. “I looked up to Matt Leinart as a kid, and I watched how he handled the media and handled himself. That’s part of your job as a quarterback, and I want to do it.”
During the first two days of training camp workouts, Barkley isn’t neglecting his primary job.
He’s working on improving the chemistry he started building last season with receivers Ronald Johnson, Brice Butler and David Ausberry. He’s also trying out the USC offense’s new toys: freshmen Robert Woods, Markeith Ambles and Kyle Prater, who make up one of the nation’s most formidable groups of young receivers.
Barkley went through the Trojans’ first practice without throwing an interception, and his extra mobility already is obvious, even if the offense favored by Kiffin and new coordinator Kennedy Pola won’t require him to do much scrambling.
“He looks amazing out here,” Johnson said. “I think we’re going to have a bigger year offensively than a lot of people are ready for. Matt is a leader already for this offense, and his talent is helping everybody.”
Barkley knows the Trojans’ season will end at the Rose Bowl — but on Dec. 4 against UCLA. Even that disappointment looks like an opportunity to Barkley: While the rest of college football’s top teams prepare for bowl games during the winter academic break, Barkley thinks he might head out on a mission trip with his church to Africa.
“In this game, you don’t really get a lot of time like that,” Barkley said. “I want to make the best of a bad situation.”