November 17, 2012; Pasadena, CA, USA; UCLA Bruins defensive end Cassius Marsh (99) pressures Southern California Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley (7) in the third quarter of the game at the Rose Bowl. UCLA won 38-28. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

An Uncertain Future for USC Quarterbacks and Lane Kiffin

A year ago at this time, Matt Barkley was Teflon. The USC Trojan quarterback announced his decision to return for his senior season two months earlier, allowing him to focus on a possible Pac-12 and BCS championship run while counterparts Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were trying to solidify their draft stock at the NFL Combine.

He was a surefire top pick in the 2013 draft, a front runner for the Heisman Trophy and the true All-American quarterback, armed with talent, good looks, a media-friendly personality and philanthropic outlook. What could go wrong?

The answer to that rhetorical is a lot. Barkley didn’t have a bad senior season. His campaign wasn’t even mediocre — it was good, by most measures. He passed for 36 touchdowns, completed over 63 percent of his attempts and approached 3300 yards. And he did it in 11 games, missing the regular season finale after suffering a shoulder injury against rival UCLA.

But all failed to match his 2011 season. Most disconcerting were the 15 interceptions he threw in 2012, more than double his total from a season earlier and the high mark of his four years as Trojan quarterback.

In a weak quarterback draft class though, that might all be easily overlooked. After all, Barkley was a four-year starter, in a Pro Set, with a proven ability to lead a winning team. His senior season might have fallen short of expectations, but those expectations were set because of how outstanding his play was as a junior.

Unfortunately for Barkley, it’s more complicated than that. And at the heart of ongoing concerns about Barkley is a problem for future Trojan quarterbacks.

USC head coach Lane Kiffin is an easy target of derision. Some of it’s fair, but some is just piling on. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock might have straddled that line this week when evaluating game tape of Barkley and Kiffin’s offense.

Ouch. The 38-28 USC loss was not one of the Trojans’ finer performances, but Barkley did throw three touchdown passes against a talented Bruin defense. So was that in spite of Kiffin’s play calling? In that case, it might strengthen Barkley’s NFL case.

Kiffin’s insistence on calling plays while also handling head coaching duties has been a topic of controversy since USC’s anemic offensive performance at Stanford in Week 3. Outcry only increased late in the season. Mayock’s lamentations of the UCLA game further a narrative that some strange decisions late against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish really sparked.

But the crux of the Kiffin play calling criticisms can be traced to a 39-36 loss at Arizona. Los Angeles Daily News beat writer Scott Wolf summed it up:

Maybe fans would just be happy if Trojans coach Lane Kiffin did a better job of clock management at the end of the game. With the Trojans trailing 39-36, USC reached Arizona’s 48 with less than 20 seconds remaining.

Instead of spiking the ball, Kiffin signaled in a play to Barkley, who then barked it out as the clock ticked down to less than 15 seconds before the ball got snapped.

And what was the play? An overthrown deep ball to a double-covered Lee.

“I don’t make those decisions on the field,” Barkley said when asked why he didn’t spike it.

Barkley and Marqise Lee made history that day, when the latter caught 16 passes for 345 yards. Lee was a legitimate Heisman contender, even with the Trojans’ team failings in a 7-5 regular season finish. But in Lee’s success, there’s more controversy.

Lee supplanted Robert Woods as the Heisman buzz-generating wide receiver and top target of Barkley to such a point that Woods was almost an afterthought in 2012.

“If the coaches wanted to keep me another year, they would’ve probably got me the ball,” Woods told reporters when announcing his decision to forego his final year of eligibility and pursue the NFL draft.

Woods also thanked the coaching staff, but the above statement certainly fueled concerns over Kiffin’s play calling. The problem doesn’t seem to be between quarterback and receiver; Woods will catch for Barkley during their Pro Day.

Jan 5, 2013; San Antonio, TX, USA; West quarterback Max Browne (13) delivers a pass during U.S. Army All-American Bowl high school football game at the Alamodome. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

With a new starter replacing Barkley, speculation that USC will also welcome a new play caller is rampant. Former Cal head coach Jeff Tedford is a frequently discussed name, but Kiffin must act quickly to have someone on board by the start of the spring season. A new coordinator would need all the time available to get either Cody Kessler, Max Wittek or Max Browne up to speed by Week 1.

In terms of Kiffin and Barkley sliding on NFL draft boards though, the problem is less a Kiffin one than it is a regional problem. Such was the word of Yahoo! Sports reporter Jason Cole, who examined the routine failings of quarterbacks from Southern California — the area, not the university.

However, many of those were USC quarterbacks. Two of the more famous, Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez, came from Pete Carroll’s regime. Leinart has barely taken game snaps at the pro level, instead relegated to clipboard duty. Sanchez has suffered through a highly publicized regression while battling to keep his job with the New York Jets.

The most successful pro products out of Quarterback U. in recent years have been Carson Palmer, who was drafted a decade ago, and whose pro success was fleeting; and Matt Cassell, a back-up in his time at USC.

Now, NFL success certainly strengthens the brand, but isn’t indicative of college performance. Leinart was a Heisman winner and one of the most celebrated collegiate quarterbacks ever — deservedly so. For Kiffin, how his quarterbacks play while wearing cardinal and gold is of the utmost importance, but even that is now a matter of concern.

USC has long been able to hand the reins over after one quarterback leaves without missing a beat. Sanchez had an outstanding 2008 after replacing the effective John David Booty, who took over for Leinart, who was the replacement of Heisman winner Palmer. But after four years of Barkley, including a stretch of some of the best quarterbacking seen in college football, there’s an uncertainty lingering over the Coliseum and USC quarterbacks.

Wittek was a highly touted, four-star prospect coming out of football factory Mater Dei. Perhaps he’s the one to snap the ongoing SoCal curse. But then, Wittek had an awful showing in USC’s Sun Bowl loss. Kessler was a four-star recruit and actually ranked higher than Wittek when the two signed, coming out of Bakersfield. But Kessler was lower on the depth chart this season, thus has ground to make up.

That leaves Browne. The Washington state product is the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the 2013 signing class, a five-star prospect with all the indicators of stardom. He’s capable of becoming an immediate starter, and the next great Trojan quarterback.

It’s very much reminiscent of four years ago, when Barkley entered the program the top rated quarterback in the 2009 signing class, beat out returners for the job, and took the first steps toward what was an assumed path to the game’s pinnacle.

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