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T.J. SIMERS

Starting at quarterback for USC isn't child's play

With Coach Pete Carroll having handed the keys to the offense to freshman Matt Barkley, Trojans fans should expect to endure a lot of growing pains.

August 30, 2009|T.J. SIMERS

This off-season Pete Carroll became Grampa Pete, so easy to understand now why he's excited about playing with a baby.

And none might be more precious than Matt Barkley.

Got my first look at the WunderKid on Saturday in the Coliseum, baby steps the order of the day, but also easy to see that Aaron Corp is still hurt, and there is absolutely no question who should be the starting quarterback for the Trojans.

Barkley looks as if he's really going to be something, all right, maybe a year or two from now.

Right now he's terrific when everything goes well, given time to throw and receivers running open. But like a child in need of a nap, as soon as the moment becomes too much, it's kicking-and-screaming "oh no" time for those doing the baby sitting.

He had one of those moments Saturday, the "classic rookie mistake," as Grampa Pete would say later, rolling right and then, rather than throwing the ball out of bounds, he just tossed it up for grabs in the end zone.

One long look at Barkley, and as for that headline in Saturday morning's Times, "USC doesn't plan to hold back . . . Barkley's inexperience won't limit offensive options, Carroll says," hogwash.

If the Trojans are going to be successful this season, Barkley's going to have to contain himself, which is going to be difficult for a kid who probably thought he could make every play in high school. Usually did, and still talks confidently as if he can

He's going to have to dial it down to tight end Anthony McCoy, Joe McKnight out of the backfield, and do a great job of handing the ball off. If the offensive line lives up to its billing, then there might be time to make wide receiver Damian Williams a major factor.

"We've got to make it easy for him," Grampa Pete said, which means the defense dominating the game. "We're already talking among ourselves that we have to be careful."

That's what happens in practice, no one allowed to hit the quarterback, and pretty throw after pretty throw.

"We've had guys here in the past and we've become so enamored with the way they throw the ball in practice, it's taken us out of our style of play," Grampa said. "We're going to try and not let that happen, which also means convincing Matt."

As Grampa Pete pointed out, Mark Sanchez had that swashbuckling approach to the game, and it allowed John David Booty to play ahead of him.

When it came time for the WunderKid to take his first step in the Coliseum, he almost landed on his keister, pulling away a hair too slowly and center Jeff Byers stepping on his foot.

He really does remind you of John Elway, No. 7 on his back, blond, big arm and growing pains. Elway lined up behind the guard waiting for the snap in one of his early pro games.

As good as Elway was at the collegiate level, the next step was too much for a while. As good as Barkley was in high school, no reason to think the next step won't also be too big for a while.

Take his first three passes, hitting the first, overthrowing the next and then completing the third -- to the defense. That's our boy, one step forward and who knows how many back before he makes it.

In the meantime, USC will do what it can to protect the youngster, beginning with "The Ripsit Blog" on the school's website.

It seems some folks in the USC football program are a little sensitive about media and message-board criticism of Barkley's proclivity for having passes intercepted.

To set everyone straight, under the headline "Barkley's interceptions: Laying down the facts," the USC site made the ridiculous comparison between the 486 passes Barkley made in seven-on-seven drills -- with no pass rush -- and 11-on-11 work with orders that no one hit him, against the regular-season USC results compiled by Matt Leinart, Booty, Sanchez and Carson Palmer.

In laying down the baloney, the blog notes Barkley threw eight interceptions, and it "sure doesn't seem like an onslaught of interceptions as many members of the media are painting the picture."

Apparently the blog hit the mark with USC fans caught out in the sun too long.

"Great insight. Should quiet a few critics," said Brian Edwards in a comment below the blog. And this from tgtotalgolf: "Let the kid grow and show. He will make mistakes. What counts is when they are made."

It might be easy to fool USC yahoos, but what about the opposition lining up across from Barkley?

On Saturday it was a bunch of scrubs playing defense against the No. 1 offensive unit and wearing black jerseys on a scorching hot day.

I guess they thought it would be too obvious if they attached an anvil to the ankle of each defender to help make the No. 1 offensive unit look better.

They didn't allow the defense to hit the WunderKid, so he probably felt pretty good about the 20-yard pass he completed to start his second possession, although he should have been flat on his back.

"I thought I did very well," he said, the black jerseys doing their job and building his confidence.

He hit 10 of 17 passes against the guys who will never play in a college game, dived into the end zone for a touchdown and threw a short pass for another.

Later he would tell the media, "I'm so excited; I've been waiting for this so long."

Barkley doesn't turn 19 until Sept. 8 and is going to play college football sooner than almost any recruit can -- so how long could he really have been waiting?

Undoubtedly USC fans are excited too, but how long will they have to wait before they can really depend on the WunderKid?

"That's what makes this fun," Pete said, a Grampa's dream, starting all over again with a youngster.

--

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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