Amid doubts, Barkley shows fire at combine

Simply put, Sept. 15, 2012 was a rough day for a journalist intent on covering a potential national title run for USC.

Weaving my way through the horde of fans mobbing the 50-yard line of Stanford Stadium after USC’s then-shocking 21-14 upset loss to Stanford, I forged ahead down a tunnel in disbelief to a makeshift media tent with eight fold-up chairs — hardly enough for the reporters on hand to cover the early-season clash.

Such a site seemed apropos, I figured, of what might be the most disappointing post-game press conference I would see in my lifetime.

Given ever-optimistic senior quarterback Matt Barkley’s knack for putting disappointing on-field results in context, I strangely looked to the signal-caller to help me rally and forget the most deflating USC loss of my college tenure. After all, Barkley’s candor and poise often made me forget that I was covering a kid my own age.

But that night, that’s how Barkley appeared: kid-like and broken by a deluge of Cardinal blitzes, with the sense he had disappointed the Trojan faithful. With his pads still on as if he could retake the field, he slumped in his chair with his eyes downcast, struggling to manage even 10-word replies.

The subsequent losses and questions about interceptions and his unwise decision to return for his senior season undoubtedly snowballed on Barkley, robbing him of his patented Hollywood smile.

Friday’s press conference at the NFL Combine was Barkley’s first public media appearance since the Trojans dismantled Arizona State 38-17 at the Coliseum on Nov. 10, and the Mater Dei High School product finally resembled what USC fans have come to expect.

Standing resolutely at the podium for 17 minutes, he commanded the room with a ferocity unexpected from someone who has started at quarterback for the last eight seasons at powerhouse programs and never had anyone seriously challenge his credentials. The NFL Combine is a place where desperation can take hold, as players’ professional dreams can be dashed if they run the 40-yard dash a tick too slow or check in a quarter of an inch below 6-foot. Not immune to this fact, Barkley clearly didn’t appreciate having his college career scrutinized for faults.

Not trying to disguise the massive chip on his shoulder at all, Barkley set out to allay any fears that he wasn’t the same player who threw 39 touchdowns and seven interceptions as a junior. Barkley unapologetically cut off reporters who rambled when asking the predictable questions.

As for the first question pertaining to his health, Barkley insisted that his shoulder will be completely healed by USC’s pro day on March 27.

“I’ve thrown — with great velocity — deep balls already,” Barkley said.

Staring almost defiantly at the crowd of reporters, Barkley knew the drill. He fielded the questions with a measured grin before answering sternly. When asked if he could tolerate initially serving as a back-up after his years of starting, Barkley said that he will do whatever it takes, but added in no uncertain terms, “My plan is to start right away and to make an impact right away.”

For those who questioned his 2012 drop-off in production, he basically responded that talent evaluators who review his game film will note that he made incremental improvements to his game even though his statistics, for a confluence of reasons (read: offensive line play) worsened. He ultimately admitted that it’s “physically impossible” to always improve upon previous seasons’ statistics, especially when those statistics break longstanding Pac-12 records.

Though he did not throw at this week’s combine, Barkley made other gains, as he measured in at 6-foot-2 1/2 — at least half an inch taller than expected — and measured bigger hands than all of his chief quarterback competitors, important for talent evaluators who are concerned about ball security at the next level. Assuming Barkley displayed the same confident demeanor in his interviews with NFL personnel, it’s safe to assume that he helped his draft stock this week as much as he could without throwing darts to receivers.

If he wishes to secure a first-round selection and regain his status as the No. 1 quarterback prospect, however, Barkley must exhibit an ability to complete all of the necessary throws at USC’s upcoming pro day, backing up his words with shoulder strength.  Thankfully for Barkley, old friend and junior wide receiver Robert Woods, the Pac-12 all-time leading receiver, will be there running routes for him, also with an eye toward improving his own draft position.

It’s a little foreign to see Barkley — not just his team — cast in an underdog role. But if Friday’s press conference is any indication, the frustrated and sometimes despondent in-season Barkley looks to have been replaced by a much more dangerous person: a talented player with something to prove while his livelihood and reputation are at stake.


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