Sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley has taken the lead over senior Mitch Mustain in the race for the Trojans’ starting quarterback position, USC coach Lane Kiffin said after practice Thursday.
The announcement came after Barkley completed the vast majority of his passes in an intra-squad scrimmage during the practice that marked the halfway point of spring ball. Barkley also made several impressive throws under pressure.
“Matt’s been playing really, really well,” Kiffin said. “Mitch has had a few too many turnovers, bad decision making, but he’s doing good too.”
Kiffin quickly dispelled any notions that the job is Barkley’s on a permanent basis.
“We’ll continue as we go out there to split the reps,” Kiffin said. “Maybe as we go into next week [the quarterback race] will change. We’ll see how they play Saturday.”
Many of Barkley’s passes were in the direction of senior wide receiver Ronald Johnson, who was open on nearly every play the Trojans ran.
“It appears to be obvious that they have really grown together,” Kiffin said of Barkley and Johnson. “[Johnson] has become the go-to guy this spring because he makes plays. It’s exciting to see. At the rate they’re going, I think it’s going to be a special combination.”
Johnson agreed with his coach, saying that he and Barkley were able to develop chemistry both on and off the field.
“I tried to hang with [Barkley] as much as possible,” Johnson said. “If he goes out, I’m going to go out. I just try to understand what he does, pick his mind a little bit, and we just connected from there.”
Meanwhile, Mustain was solid, if not quite as sharp as Barkley. While it seemed like a majority of Barkley’s passes were on the money, Mustain occasionally threw into empty spaces and on one pass overthrew his receiver by five feet resulting in an interception.
However, Kiffin made it clear that Mustain was not the only player who needed improvement.
“Today was just okay,” Kiffin said. “It was a little bit sloppy. We need to pick the tempo up, the physical aspect of practice. Guys can’t get complacent, even the guys who are playing at a higher level.”
As for the rest of the offense, the Trojans continued to experiment with the Wildcat formation, sending Barkley out wide and putting freshman tailback (and new YouTube sensation) Dillon Baxter behind center. For Baxter, who ran the offense at Mission Bay High School in San Diego, the formation is a bit trickier at the college level.
“The defensive ends are way faster,” Baxter said with a laugh. “The linebackers read it real well. As an offense, we just have to keep running it and see where it takes us.”
With the second half of spring football beginning Saturday, Kiffin says he expects the team to start taking bigger steps.
“It’s time to go to the next level,” Kiffin said. “We need to make sure guys want to be the best in the country, not just the best on this field.”