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The first time I saw Matt Barkley, I was a producer at NFL Films working on a TV special about Mater Dei High School in Orange County, Ca. We didn’t do many shows about high school football, so clearly there was something pretty compelling about this particular school. It was a kid named Matt Barkley.
This was 2008 and Barkley was a senior. The previous year, he was the Gatorade national high school player of the year, the first time a junior ever won the award. He was already being talked about as a once in a generation phenom. He was called a cross between Joe Montana and Tom Brady.
Barkley became Mater Dei’s starting quarterback as a true freshman and Mater Dei is no ordinary high school. It is a football powerhouse that produced two previous Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks, John Huarte (Notre Dame) and Matt Leinart (USC). They were good, folks said, but Barkley was better.
There was a lot of pressure on Barkley but he handled it well. He was a handsome kid with a surfer’s blonde hair and easy smile. He didn’t seem bothered by our cameras following him around, filming him in class, in the cafeteria and on the practice field. He had been through it all before so it was no big deal.
I was struck by his size -- he was a sturdy 6-1 and 210 pounds -- and his maturity. He looked and carried himself like a college senior, not a 12th grader. He answered questions with a breezy confidence. He was remarkably down to earth for a kid who had accomplished so much. He laughed when we asked if it was true he rode a boogie board when he was one year old. (The answer was yes).
“I just like doing stuff,” he said.
It also was true that on his eighth birthday he announced he was going to play football at the University of Southern California. By the time we caught up with him at Mater Dei, he already had committed to USC, spurning more than an hundred other scholarship offers. His father was an All-America water polo player at Southern Cal in the '70s, so Barkley never considered going anywhere else.
I was impressed with Barkley the whole time we worked on the film. I was impressed with the way he interacted with his classmates and teammates. He didn’t act like a big deal although he surely was. I was impressed with how smart he was in chalk talks with the coaches. He could watch a game tape and pick it apart like a seasoned pro.
So it did not come as a huge surprise when one year later Barkley became the first true freshman to start a regular season opener at quarterback for Southern Cal. Coach Pete Carroll told USA Today, “This is not a typical kid.” I already knew that.
Barkley made his first start before 84,000 people at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Imagine, a true freshman stepping onto that stage. He completed 15 of 19 passes for 233 yards and one touchdown as Southern Cal crushed San Jose State, 56-3. The following week, he went into Ohio State and with 100,000 hostile fans howling at him, he rallied the Trojans to an 18-15 win.
“This is what a quarterback is supposed to be,” Barkley said after the game. “It feels natural to me.”
Barkley did not realize all the lofty expectations imagined for him. He did become the first four-year starter at quarterback in USC history. He set 20 school passing records and 10 conference records. He did not, however, win a Heisman Trophy as Huarte and Leinart did. And he did not go first in the NFL draft as many predicted prior to the 2012 season.
No doubt it was disappointing for Barkley to watch three rounds of the draft pass by without his name being called. He finally was selected Saturday by the Eagles, who traded to the top of the fourth round to acquire him (see story). Eagles coach Chip Kelly had seen enough of Barkley over the past four seasons to make him believe the kid could run his offense, however it is drawn up.
I have to admit, I didn’t see it coming. Barkley’s skill set didn’t seem a fit for the read option offense we all presumed Kelly was bringing to Philadelphia. Barkley -- who is now 6-2 and 225 pounds -- is a rhythm passer, not a runner. He can slide in the pocket, he can run the bootleg and throw fairly well on the move, but he is not a guy who will threaten a defense with his ability to run. He is at his best executing play-action and throwing off a conventional five or seven step drop.
Barkley has been well-schooled in playing the position. Watch his movements. See how he pump fakes and uses his eyes to move defenders and open lanes where he can fit the ball to his receivers. He has a superb touch. No quarterback in this class throws the swing pass better than Barkley. But this isn’t what we saw in Kelly’s quarterbacks at Oregon.
Maybe Kelly was telling the truth when he said he wasn’t necessarily going to do things the same way here. We’ll see soon enough.
Talking to scouts in recent weeks, there was a wide split of opinion on Barkley. His performance tailed off last season and he suffered a shoulder injury that put him on the shelf late in the year. He didn’t throw at the Combine and when he did workout for the scouts last month, he got lukewarm reviews. Most said Barkley was fine on the short and intermediate throws, but when he went deep, the ball often hung in the air.
At draft time, scouts always look for comparisons and those who like Barkley often compare him to Drew Brees. Those who don’t like him compare him to Colt McCoy, a very good college quarterback who won a lot of games at a storied school (Texas), but didn’t have the tools to be an impact player in the NFL. The fact that USC quarterbacks have not exactly lit it up lately -- Carson Palmer, Leinart and Mark Sanchez -- only casts more doubt on Barkley.
But I remember what I saw when we were making that film at Mater Dei High School. I saw a kid who appeared bound for greatness. Maybe, just maybe, he will achieve it here.