LOS ANGELES — Southern California quarterback Matt Barkley believed he was prepared to play in the NFL and the draft prognosticators agreed with him.
He had skillfully guided the program through two years of NCAA sanctions, put up big numbers to add his name to the list of great Trojans quarterbacks.
Barkley just wasn’t ready to leave. He still had some unfinished business at USC.
Setting off a round of cheers at USC’s Heritage Hall, Barkley announced Thursday that he’s returning for his senior season, putting off the NFL for a chance to lead the Trojans from under the cloud of NCAA sanctions to a BCS bowl.
“I am staying so I can finish what I started,” Barkley said.
At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds and with a game that matured over three years at Troy, Barkley was projected as a high first-round pick in the NFL draft, an enticement that had lured his predecessor, Mark Sanchez, after his junior season.
Instead of following Sanchez’s footsteps, Barkley took the route of former USC quarterback Matt Leinart and Stanford’s Andrew Luck.
Leinart returned to USC after winning the Heisman Trophy and a national championship, and led the Trojans to the 2005 BCS title game, where they lost to Texas. Luck came back this season after being the Heisman runner-up last year and took the Cardinal to the Fiesta Bowl while finishing second to Baylor’s Robert Griffin III in this year’s Heisman voting.
Like those two, Barkley felt as though he still had goals he wanted to accomplish after leading the Trojans to a 10-2 record and a No. 5 ranking in The Associated Press poll.
Barkley let USC coach Lane Kiffin know about his decision with a Christmas ornament that had a picture of the two together during this season’s game against Colorado on one side and the words “One More Year” on the back. His announcement Thursday in front of about 200 people, including his family and Kiffin, set off a wave of applause and a quick burst from USC’s band as a pair of cheerleaders danced along.
“That’s not an easy decision,” Kiffin said. “Not many people would do what Matt has done.”
Barkley is the latest in a heralded lineup of USC quarterbacks that includes Carson Palmer, Leinart and Sanchez.
He had an uneven first season with the Trojans, making some questionable decisions that led to 14 interceptions. Still, Barkley threw for over 2,700 yards and 15 touchdowns to become the only freshman semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien Award as the nation’s best quarterback.
Barkley developed into a mature leader by his sophomore season, again throwing for over 2,700 yards, with 26 TDs, a completion rate of 62 percent and 12 interceptions. He also handled questions about USC’s sanctions with poise, never shying away from talking about the program’s difficulties.
As a junior, he developed into one of the country’s best quarterbacks, throwing for 3,528 yards and 39 touchdowns with only seven interceptions on a team that was one of the best in the country the last half of the season. The Trojans won seven of their final eight games, though they had to endure a second straight bowl-less season thanks to postseason sanctions that end next season.
USC left tackle Matt Kalil declared for the NFL draft last week, but on Wednesday safety T.J. McDonald said he was returning for his senior year. Now with Barkley, the Trojans are loaded and likely one of the front-runners to win next year’s national title.
Barkley also will enter next season as the leading contender for the Heisman Trophy — much the way Luck did when he made a similar decision after the 2010 season — and can firm up his place as one of the best quarterbacks in the history of a program filled with great ones.
“I think looking at the team that we have there is that chance,” Barkley said of playing in a BCS game next season. “We’re on the rise and like I said in my (opening) statements, I feel like there is unfinished business.”