So much has happened since Matt Barkley first stepped onto USC’s campus years ago, when he was just an 18-year-old with a million-dollar smile and championship promise in tow.
First came the losses of 2009 — four in a season for the first time since 2001 — as a team in flux tried to live up to impossible expectations spawned by years of NCAA dominance and Rose Bowl victories.
Initially it seemed like a blessing that former USC coach Pete Carroll fully believed in the fresh-faced Barkley to take the reins.
But while it gave Barkley a great opportunity, it quickly became obvious there were too many pieces missing for the team to repeat as Pac-10 champions, leaving the freshman to shoulder much of the blame.
Then came the coaching change: The impossible happened, and Carroll was gone — off to Seattle in a flash.
Barkley, heading into only his second year of college and left alone as starting quarterback, was suddenly the arm, face and life of the Trojans.
But whether it was the quick maturation process he went through his freshman year or the veteran composition he exuded in comparison to newly acquired coach Lane Kiffin, he suddenly seemed fit for the part.
Then, of course, came the sanctions and the ensuing madness. Amidst questions of future recruiting, transfers, lost scholarships and a potential lack of will to play and win, Barkley remained poised to lead USC to victory.
And, considering the disaster that was the 2010 Trojan defense, he did for the most part — that is, until a cringing tackle midway through a Nov. 20 contest at Oregon State left him unable to play. The Trojans went on to lose miserably to the Beavers and then drop a heart-wrencher to intersectional rival Notre Dame a week later, leaving an undesirable taste in everyone’s mouth and a mark on Barkley’s already spotty résumé.
That’s quite a lot for someone to digest before reaching the halfway point of one’s college career.
So as we near the start of the 2011 season and Barkley tries for a third time to lead the Trojans to end zone glory, the same questions surround him since he committed to USC — uncertainties about his talent, leadership and ability to make plays to put the Trojans in a position to win football games.
But while the questions remain unchanged, the answers certainly haven’t.
Barkley might have been the best quarterback in the nation coming out of high school, but none of his hype mattered once he was thrown under center wearing cardinal and gold.
His raw talents let him feel the rush of victory at times, but other times were not enough to bring him desired results. He lacked that elusive mental toughness that only comes with experience.
Many said that for Barkley to become a better player, he needed to first deal with the steep mental and emotional learning curve involved with being a college quarterback.
But with each new development regarding the team in the last two years, that steep learning curve transformed into a Himalayan-sized problem that everyone looked to their beloved quarterback to solve.
Barkley hasn’t been the answer on more than one occasion, but the fact that he has dealt with it all suggests that he might be reaching a breakthrough.
Deserved or not, his legacy is forever tied to the tumultuous past two seasons, and it has steeled him — for as much change that has occurred, he has been the proverbial rock in the depth chart.
The highs and lows of this season won’t be dictated by whether or not he can throw the ball 60 yards, thread the needle to a covered receiver or evade oncoming linemen.
It will come down to Barkley making the right decisions and preventing a youthful team from becoming unmotivated due to a plethora of factors working against them.
And while it has been both literally and figuratively painful for Barkley at times during his short career, it might be for the best — the junior is the right guy to lead this current team because of what he has already gone through.
The man behind center for the season opener this Saturday might look the same, run the same and throw the same as you last remember him.
But a closer examination will reveal that in place of the wide-eyed 18-year old kid from Newport Beach, Calif. is a tough quarterback that, with two years of starting experience, appears more than ready to win.
“One-Two Punch” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email James at firstname.lastname@example.org.