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Originally published September 15, 2009 at 8:10 PM | Page modified September 15, 2009 at 11:53 PM

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Freshman QB steps right in at USC

Matt Barkley says the jump from eighth grade to freshman starter in high school was tougher than this transition

Seattle Times staff reporter

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To get the first thing people in Seattle want to know about Matt Barkley out of the way, USC's quarterback says the bruised right shoulder he suffered in Saturday's win over Ohio State won't sideline him this week when the Trojans come to Husky Stadium.

"I will be playing," he said Tuesday in a phone interview. "No worries."

And while USC coach Pete Carroll was a little more non-committal in a meeting with media a little later, what Barkley sets his sights on, he usually gets, no matter the seeming odds.

Start at quarterback for the USC Trojans as an 18-year-old just a few months removed from high school?

No big deal. He'd been there before, starting for Mater Dei High, one of the most storied high-school football programs in California — as a ninth-grader.

"I think it was a bigger jump, actually, going from eighth grade and Pop Warner football to some of the best high-school football in the country," Barkley said. "This transition [from high school to college] was really smooth."

It looked like it Saturday when Barkley, who had turned 19 just four days earlier, led the Trojans on what figures to become one of most storied drives in the program's rich history, guiding USC 86 yards to score the winning touchdown with 1:05 left to pull out a win at Ohio State. Carroll later said it ranked with a memorable win at Notre Dame in 2005 — the famous "Bush Push" game — as the best of his tenure.

Watching via TV in Seattle, one of the men who helped recruit Barkley to USC — former Trojans offensive coordinator and current UW coach Steve Sarkisian — barely batted an eye as the freshman completed 4 of 5 passes for 55 yards and twice executed quarterback sneaks to convert first downs to key the final drive.

Sarkisian first remembered watching a tape of Barkley as a ninth-grader at Mater Dei, running an offense that rivals in complexity those of many colleges.

"They use a lot of shifts and motions, and Matt was doing a lot of 'check with me' at the line of scrimmage," Sarkisian said. "And I remember thinking 'this kid is in the ninth grade and he's audibling at the line of scrimmage. He's doing things some college quarterbacks don't do.' So I was thoroughly impressed with him the first time I saw him."

Barkley, a conventional drop-back QB, committed to USC before his junior season was over, a time when it figured he'd spend his freshman year likely redshirting behind Mark Sanchez. But then Sanchez decided to turn pro, and Barkley — who graduated high school early to enroll at USC in time for spring practice — found himself in a battle with the more experienced Aaron Corp and Mitch Mustain for the starting job.

He says he never questioned whether he could win it.

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"If you have any doubts, I don't think it could have happened," he said. "So I came in here with the mindset that it could."

When it did, the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder became just the third true freshman in school history to start at QB, the others being Carson Palmer (midway through the 1998 season) and Rob Johnson (late in 1993).

He was also the first true freshman to start an opening game at quarterback for a team rated in the AP Top 5 since Michigan's Rick Leach in 1975.

"He comes to SC and he's exceeding the expectations of everyone but himself," Sarkisian said. "I can't imagine Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty, Mark Sanchez doing what he's doing. To me, in four years, this guy's going to be better than all of them."

Barkley's father, Les, was a four-year letterman water-polo player at USC, helping grease the skids for his commitment to the Trojans. But Barkley wasn't exactly throwing passes right out of the womb. He says he never played football until the sixth grade, spending his prior years dabbling in other sports.

He said he lucked out when his first coach was a former high-school coach, Brent Melbon, who was spending some time in youth leagues. Melbon is again coaching high-school football at Dana Hills in southern California.

"He was really pushing us and pushing our minds as far as the mental aspects of the game," Barkley said.

He later became one of the many protégés of southern California quarterback guru Steve Clarkson, whose pupils also once upon a time included Sarkisian and now number current Husky Jake Locker and UW commit Nick Montana.

Sarkisian says it's all added up to a quarterback who won't be awed by anything that comes his way despite playing at an age when most quarterbacks are still learning their way to the locker room.

"It's not too big for him," Sarkisian said.

Nothing has been yet, anyway.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Barkley vs. Locker
After two games, here's how quarterbacks Matt Barkley (USC) and Jake Locker (UW) match up:
Barkley Locker
2 Games 2
30 Completions 42
50 Attempts 70
1 Interceptions 1
60.0 Percentage 60.0
428 Yards 574
214.0 Yds per game 287.0
1 Touchdowns 5

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