PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Matt Barkley is still the best quarterback prospect in the 2013 draft class, but his disappointing performance in USC's 21-14 loss to Stanford suggests that he remains a work in progress at the position. Although it is easy to make that suggestion following one of the worst games in Barkley's career, I decided to take a closer look at the performance to see how he was faring in three key areas to cement his status as the top player in college football. Here are my findings:
Leadership:Barkley entered the game regarded as one of the best leaders in college football based largely on his ability to guide USC back to the top of the football world while enduring the fallout from NCAA sanctions. Barkley has stood tall through it all, displaying outstanding poise and character. When he bypassed the opportunity to enter the NFL draft following his junior season, he openly discussed helping his team capture an elusive Pac-12 championship and guiding USC on a national championship runs as goals. He routinely deflected any individual attention and put the emphasis back on team accomplishments.
On the field, Barkley took on more responsibilities with his starting center, Khaled Holmes, out of the lineup on Saturday. He barked out pass protections at the line of scrimmage, while also reading the front and coverage to determine if the Trojans were in the best play for the situation. During the first half, Barkley appeared to have a good feel for the Cardinal's schemes and quickly got the ball into the hands of his playmakers. He routinely delivered the ball on time after getting to the top of his drops, and had the Trojans on the move for most of the first half. However, Barkley wasn't able to get the offense back on track after the unit turned the ball over on three straight drives to close the half. Barkley was responsible for two of the miscues when he tossed a pair of interceptions on consecutive throws at the end of the second quarter.
In the second half, USC had three three-and-outs in six possessions and failed to score a point on a defense that struggled in previous contests against Duke and San Jose State. Although the bulk of the blame for the Trojans' ineffectiveness rests on the shoulders of the offensive line, Barkley was unable spark the offense with a big play in the passing game. Barkley finished the game completing 20 of 41 passes for 254 yards with two interceptions, and only connected on nine of his 21 attempts in the second half. Those numbers are certainly disappointing for a player as talented as Barkley and reflect poorly on his ability to raise his level of play in a big game.
Game Management:For all of the emphasis placed on the physical traits needed to play the position well as a pro, elite quarterbacks defeat opponents with their superior football aptitude. Barkley is outstanding in this aspect of the game, relying on his vast experience as a four-year starter to understand the subtleties of fronts and coverage. Barkley has the freedom to make adjustments at the line and rarely allows his offense to run a bad play against a challenging defensive alignment.
On Saturday night, however, Barkley appeared to have problems setting the protection against Stanford's active 3-4 defense. Barkley didn't consistently anticipate "gut" (up-the-middle blitzes) and overload pressures, resulting in five sacks on the day. While some of those takedowns should be pinned on the ineffectiveness of the offensive line, the inability of Barkley to sense the blitz certainly affected the rhythm and timing of the offense. Failing to make Stanford pay for blitzing by connecting quickly with his receivers and running backs on blitz beaters, Barkley enabled Stanford to stick with an aggressive game plan that completely destroyed the effectiveness of the Trojan offense.
Barkley also failed to make good decisions in critical moments against the Cardinal. He finished with two interceptions, and both were the result of poor decisions in the pocket. Barkley turned the ball over with less than two minutes remaining in the first half when he attempted to squeeze the ball into a tight window. He followed that miscue with another interception on a hurried throw downfield on the first play of the Trojans' next possession. With both mistakes costing USC scoring chances, Barkley prevented his offense from building momentum heading into the break.
Anticipation: Barkley lacks elite arm talent, so his game must be flawless in other aspects. He must win by managing the game well and utilizing his superior football acumen to defeat opponents with precise throws that lead his intended receivers into open windows.
Barkley is typically on point in this regard, but he was a little off his game against the Cardinal. He occasionally delivered the ball on the receiver's incorrect shoulder, preventing the Trojans' talented receiving corps from picking up chunks of yardage after the catch.
In addition, Barkley was a little out of sync with his timing due to the barrage of pressure from the Cardinal defense. The persistent harassment sped up Barkley's internal clock, and he hurried a few throws that should've been easy completions from a passer of his skill level. Although the game's best passers can be affected by pressure, the fact that Barkley was thrown off his game by the harassment of the Cardinal defense suggests he must play with better anticipation in the pocket.
Conclusion: Barkley remains the top quarterback in the country despite getting off to a slow start this season. He has demonstrated the ability to direct a pro-style offense with precision, and he possesses the requisite tools to be an effective playmaker as a pro. Although he still needs to refine the finer aspects of his game, he remains a notch above West Virginia's Geno Smith, Oklahoma's Landry Jones, N.C. State's Mike Glennon and Florida State's E.J. Manuel. However, if Barkley doesn't get back to playing at his best, he could leave the door open for someone else to emerge as the best QB in college football.
Word on the street
The best receivers in college football reside in the Pac-12, according to a pair of NFC scouts I spoke with this week. Both cited Cal's Keenan Allen, USC's Robert Woods and Washington State's Marquess Wilson as the top pass catchers in the country. When I pressed both evaluators about which receiver has the most complete overall game, Allen was tabbed as the choice due to his size, speed and explosiveness. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Allen is a big, physical receiver with outstanding hands and ball skills. Most importantly, he is a polished route runner with an uncanny knack for getting open against tight coverage.
Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
Smith makes his second appearance on the list after torching James Madison for 411 pass yards and five touchdowns. Smith has been superb with his accuracy, ball placement and decision making, while directing the Mountaineers' high-octane offense. NFL scouts have kept close tabs on Smith throughout his career due to his remarkable production since taking over behind center in 2010, but he has started to create a buzz in the scouting community as a possible first-round pick based on his combination of physical tools and football aptitude. He has shown a game that is far more polished than typical spread-offense quarterbacks, and his gradual improvement over the past year makes him a viable option as a potential franchise quarterback. With a challenging schedule against Big 12 competition to showcase his impressive skills on a big stage, Smith could climb dramatically up the charts over the course of the season.
De'Anthony Thomas, WR, Oregon
Thomas continues to solidify his reputation as college football's most explosive player with his weekly highlight plays as a runner/receiver/returner. Against an overmatched Tennessee Tech squad, Thomas amassed 220 all-purpose yards on only 10 touches, while displaying extraordinary speed, quickness and burst with the ball in his hands. He scored on a 59-yard run that showcased his sub-4.4 speed, and added a 16-yard touchdown grab that highlighted his ability to make plays out of the backfield. With few college football players capable of matching his impact as a triple threat, Thomas is certainly one to watch as a Heisman candidate.
Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford
After languishing in the shadows of Andrew Luck for three seasons, Taylor is beginning to earn the respect of evaluators across the league with his workman-like game. Taylor has quietly posted back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and is poised to leave Stanford as one of the most productive backs in Pac-12 history. Against USC, Taylor showcased a diverse game that resulted in 213 total yards from scrimmage, including 153 rushing yards on 27 carries. While Taylor's 59-yard touchdown run showed off his underrated quickness, vision and cutback ability, it was his ability to grind out three- and four-yard gains in the fourth quarter against a stacked Trojan defense that stood out in my mind. NFL teams covet backs with the ability to finish games in four-minute situations, and Taylor displayed his ability to thrive as a grinder with the game on the line. If Taylor can continue to put on standout performances against Pac-12 competition, he will creep up into Day 2 consideration for the 2013 draft.
Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame
Te'o deservedly makes another appearance on this list after putting on a dominant showing against the Spartans. Te'o finished with 12 tackles, one tackle for loss and a fumble recovery, while spearheading a defense that surrendered only 237 yards. The fact that the performance came only days after the deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend is a testament to his concentration, focus and leadership skills. With NFL coaches coveting players with the ability to thrive in all situations, Te'o's extraordinary performance while dealing with personal tragedy will earn him high marks in war rooms across the league.
Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
Urban Meyer has been effusive in his praise of the star quarterback's playmaking ability since taking over the Buckeye program, and Miller validated that opinion with his performance Saturday. Miller completed 16 of 30 passes for 249 yards and four scores, while adding another 75 yards on the ground and a rushing touchdown. He single-handedly dismantled the Cal defense with his unique skills as a dual-threat playmaker. Although he remains raw and unrefined as a pocket passer, Miller's ability to deliver explosive plays through the air or on the ground could make him a darkhorse Heisman candidate.
Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech
Thomas was touted as one of the top quarterbacks in college football during the preseason, but he has not played like an elite player consistently this year. Thomas completed only 14 of his 31 passes for 265 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions in a 35-17 upset loss at Pitt. While those disappointing numbers were not the primary reason why the Hokies came up short, they are part of a disturbing trend that has seen Thomas only completing 54.3 percent of his throws through three games. He has been inconsistent with his accuracy and ball placement and has been hesitant to pull the trigger under pressure. Although Thomas remains an intriguing player to watch based on his immense talent and potential, he is not in the same class as Smith, Barkley and Georgia's Aaron Murray at this time.
John L. Smith, head coach, Arkansas
Smith abruptly inherited a top 10-caliber team after Bobby Petrino's April firing, but he has failed to get the Razorbacks to perform up to expectation. The team is reeling after consecutive losses to Louisiana-Monroe and Alabama. The 52-0 loss to the Crimson Tide is particularly disturbing, due to the lack of competitiveness between the SEC West division rivals. The Razorbacks generated only 137 yards of total offense and failed to seriously threaten the Crimson Tide for most of the day. Given Smith's esteemed reputation as an offensive innovator, the lack of production from the Razorbacks reflects poorly on his prospects of retaining the job at the end of the season.