Southern California quarterback Matt Barkley isn't going anywhere.
Barkley, the second-ranked player in NFLDraftScout.com's overall rankings, announced Thursday that he will be back at USC for his senior season in 2012.
"I have not yet finished my journey as a Trojan football player," Barkley said, adding that the USC team has some "serious unfinished business, and I intend to play a part in it."
"I am prepared to play quarterback in the NFL. It is my dream to play quarterback in the NFL," Barkley said Thursday at Heritage Hall on the campus of USC. But he said he will finish the "exceptional and unique journey he has had at USC" following in the footsteps of Luck and eventual top 10 pick Matt Leinart, who after the 2004 season opted to return for his fifth year.
Alex Smith was the No. 1 overall pick in '04, when many projected Leinart to be the top available quarterback at the end of the season. But Leinart had surgery for elbow tendinitis, which would've surely reduced his draft value, before his senior season and wound up as the No. 10 overall pick.
Jake Locker (Washington), Peyton Manning (Tennessee) and Eli Manning all returned for their senior seasons despite buzz that they would be a cinch to be drafted in the top 10.
How Barkley's decision, arrived upon after meeting with coach Lane Kiffin, athletic director Pat Haden and current and former USC players, to give Tinseltown one last spin but pass on the NFL will play out is unknown. But there's no argument about the level of talent returning at USC, which is expected to have a top five preseason ranking in 2012.
There are few doubts about Barkley as a pro prospect, but there are questions. He solicited a detailed evaluation from the NFL Draft Advisory Committee earlier in the month.
The actual grade Barkley was given by the NFL Advisory Committee is likely to remain a secret, NFLDraftScout.com has spoken to enough high-ranking pro scouts to confirm our own ranking of the Trojan passer as a legitimate first-round talent. Barkley ranked No. 2 behind only Andrew Luck in NFLDraftScout.com's quarterback rankings, which lists only those potentially available for the 2012 draft. He was also the No. 2 prospect overall.
University of Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian, who worked with Barkley when coaching at Southern California and has faced his former pupil and Stanford's Andrew Luck twice since he moved to Seattle, told the media in November that, "If I'm an NFL head coach right now, I'd pick Matt Barkley ahead of Andrew Luck."
Scouts do have some reservations about Barkley's physical tools. Listed by Southern California at just 6-2, 220 pounds, he doesn't possess the height or bulk preferred at the position and has been protected by a strong Trojan offensive line throughout his career.
Some talent evaluators question whether Barkley has the arm strength to make every NFL throw. Though Southern Cal operates out of a pro-style offense, Barkley is rarely asked to drive the ball to the opposite hash. When he does so, his passes tend to wobble slightly. Because the USC junior has a technically clean set-up, delivery and release, the wobbly passes are thought to be an indication that Barkley may have small hands and only moderate overall arm strength.
While these traits do serve as potential red flags, scouts have much more to like about Barkley than they dislike. As mentioned, Barkley is a technically refined passer well-groomed in a pro-style offense. While many of today's rookie quarterbacks require time on the sideline to acclimate, Barkley is seen as relatively ready to "plug and play." His leadership and toughness have drawn raves from those close to the Southern Cal program. In the history of Southern California no true freshman quarterback had ever earned the starting role in the season opener until Barkley. Operating under the constant glare of Los Angeles sans an NFL team, Barkley is used to being a high-profile athlete in a major media market.
While there may be little in terms of NFL readiness for Barkley to gain in returning for his senior season, the allure of team and personal goals ultimately proved too much for the Trojan passer to leave school early. After being banned the past two years from bowl games due to the Reggie Bush scandal, Southern Cal is eligible for a bowl next year and is, not surprisingly, loaded to make a big run.
The loss of left tackle Matt Kalil early to the NFL is offset by the fact that Southern Cal is expected to return their other four starters up front. Southern Cal was one of only seven teams this season that didn't start a senior on their offensive line. The fact that Barkley is returning to throw to arguably the best receiving corps in the country in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee and their leading rusher from last season, Curtis McNeal.
Completing 69.1 percent of his passes for 3,528 yards and a sparkling 39-7 touchdown to interception ratio, Barkley was as effective as any quarterback in the country. The fact that despite these numbers and Southern Cal being the high-profile program it is Barkley wasn't even invited as a Heisman finalist may have also contributed to his decision to return early.