LOS ANGELES -- The golden boy quarterback sounds too good to be true. Highly hyped high school signal callers usually are. So you get on a plane and fly 3,000 miles for a football practice. You have to see this kid for yourself.
It's the Tuesday before USC's season opener against San Jose State. Less than a week earlier, coach Pete Carroll made the eyebrow-raising decision to name true freshman Matt Barkley his opening-day starting quarterback over the more experienced Aaron Corp and Mitch Mustain.
As practice begins, the QB trio moves to a side field for basic passing drills. You're no football coach, no expert on quarterback mechanics, but it takes only a couple throws from each to notice the striking disparity. At 6-foot-2, 230-pounds, Barkley is physically bigger than the other two ("It looks like he's wearing two sets of shoulder pads," jokes one onlooker), but it's not just that. His passes are sharper, crisper. The velocity, even on simple out routes, is clearly on another level.
When the Trojans go into full-blown scrimmage mode at the end of practice, you notice something else about Barkley: He carries himself like a guy who's been starting for years. He calmly looks to the sideline for the play-call, makes eye contact in the huddle, calls out the safeties' alignment at the line of scrimmage, barks the snap count and, when a pair of pass-rushers descend on him, smartly dumps the ball to his fullback.
That's when it hits you. He reminds you of someone. Not any quarterback you've covered in college, not any quarterback playing today, but a similarly shaped quarterback who, as a 13-year-old, you watched on your parents' television as he calmly led his team downfield for a game-winning Super Bowl drive.
It's like you're looking out at a young Joe Montana.
"Once every so many years, you find this one person that has something, you can't explain it, but you feel it," said Steve Clarkson, Barkley's private tutor since high school whose previous students include Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Leinart and Jimmy Clausen. "When he walks into a room, you know it. When he walks into a huddle, his teammates feel it."
After practice, a throng of reporters surrounds Barkley, all poking and prodding for any sign the 18-year-old might be nervous for his college debut. He responds calmly, pensively, but the topic genuinely seems foreign to him.
"I don't generally get nervous," said the kid with the golden-blond locks. "I feel 100 percent confident [running the Trojans' offense] because I know it works."
Four days later, Barkley, the first true freshman since Michigan's Rick Leach in 1975 to start a season-opener for a top five team, completes 15-of-19 passes for 233 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions in a 56-3 rout of San Jose State. Asked afterward what was most difficult, Barkley responds genuinely: "The run up the tunnel at halftime. That was brutal."
On Saturday night, most of the nation will get its first glimpse of Barkley when the third-ranked Trojans visit No. 8 Ohio State. Whether or not Barkley has a big game against the Buckeyes, fans may one day remember the contest as a landmark moment. If you believe the people who have watched him most closely, starting from the time he became the first freshman starter at Orange County prep power Mater Dei in 22 years, you'll be watching not only the next great college star, but also the next Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.
He's earned those comparisons thanks to more than just arm strength. "His physical gifts are well-documented -- he's got the picture-perfect throwing motion -- but his mental make-up is off the charts," said Clarkson.
In February 2008, when Barkley committed to the Trojans as a high school junior, Clarkson told SI.com's Arash Markazi that Barkley was "on track to be the greatest quarterback I've ever worked with ... We're actually working on pro stuff because that's where his mind-set it. He's now training at two levels above his peers."
At the time, it seemed like typical recruiting hyperbole. But then Barkley stepped onto the USC campus last spring and exceeded the coaches' wildest expectations. By Barkley's fifth practice, Carroll realized he was dealing with a rare phenomenon.
"He shouldn't have been able to do the things we saw him doing," said Carroll, whose previous USC quarterbacks include two Heisman winners (Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart) and a top five draft pick (Mark Sanchez). "We have a quarterback that's unusual. He's so far ahead of the curve, that it's hard to predict what he's going to be able to do."
Carroll has spent much of the past two weeks trying to explain to inquiring media members how he could possibly entrust a true freshman to lead a national-championship contender. It's obvious the coach at times grows frustrated -- not by the second-guessers, but by the difficulty he has conveying the rarity of the situation.
"You guys are looking for typical things," Carroll said after the San Jose State game. "This is not a typical kid."
Indeed, much of Barkley's back story fits the Tim Tebow/Colt McCoy "too good to be true" mold.
Raised in a devout Christian household (his father, Les, is a former USC water polo player), Barkley played acoustic guitar for his church choir. He and his family founded Monarchs for Marines, a Mater Dei-related charity that raised more than $100,000 for the families of wounded and fallen soldiers. He spent winter break of his senior year volunteering at an orphanage in South Africa.
Following a recent practice, someone asked Barkley about pictures supposedly floating around the Internet of him "chatting up coeds."
"Coeds? ... You mean girls?" said Barkley. "No, I don't associate with them.
"I like to have fun, don't get me wrong, but I'm not going to be out doing anything crazy. You don't have to worry about that."
Entering fall camp, Barkley was the clear No. 2 behind Corp. But even before the third-year sophomore injured his leg, opening the door for Barkley, the freshman's summer film study had enabled him to close the gap. Teammates soon noticed his mature demeanor.
"He's never really been scared or intimidated," said Trojans safety Taylor Mays. "He just kind of gets the ball and does his thing. Coach Carroll has confidence in him, so why shouldn't we?"
This isn't the first time Barkley has displayed accelerated development. In 2005, he became the first freshman to start at quarterback for Mater Dei since ToddMarinovich in 1983. (His predecessors included Leinart and Colt Brennan.) In '07, he became the first junior to win Gatorade's National Player of the Year award.
To become the Trojans' starter, Barkley had to master an NFL-style offense that even Leinart struggled with his first two years as a Trojan.
"Every guy we've brought in here, we thought they had a chance [to play as a freshman], but they hit a wall," said Carroll. "We thought John David [Booty] could, but it just didn't happen. It took him a long time. Matt wasn't behind the curve -- he was ahead."
With a loaded supporting cast at his disposal, Barkley won't have to approach the wall, let alone hit it. With four returning starters on the offensive line, a deep stable of tailbacks (Joe McKnight, Stafon Johnson and C.J. Gable among them) and a veteran tight end (Anthony McCoy), fullback (Stanley Havili) and receivers (Damian Williams and David Ausberry), Barkley won't have to throw for 300 yards a game. Against San Jose State, USC leaned heavily on its running game (rushing for 342 yards), with many of Barkley's yards coming on quick bootlegs and catch-and-runs by his receivers.
Presumably, quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates, the 32-year-old former Denver Broncos assistant and Jay Cutler mentor who replaces Steve Sarkisian as the Trojans' play-caller, will stick to a similar plan against the Buckeyes. If needed, however, Carroll insists Barkley can run nearly any part of USC's package.
"There aren't many throws he can't make," said Carroll. "As far as setting up and throwing it, he can do all of that. That's not even an issue.
"The biggest problem we have is our receivers getting out there, because the ball comes so quickly, sometimes they're not quite ready for the throws. He has a natural sense for getting rid of the football. He doesn't wait to see guys, he throws the ball when guys are just beginning to get in the open areas. That's a knack."
The one thing Carroll can't yet access is how the freshman will react when faced with 105,000 hostile fans at the Horseshoe on Saturday night. Barkley himself admitted: "I probably don't know what I'm in for. I'm not going to worry about that."
Carroll is not going to worry, either. Last week, he made a point of emphasizing he doesn't view his faith in Barkley as "a gamble."
"Under the circumstances, I see this as a good, solid decision," he said. However, should the freshman falter on the big stage Saturday and make a game-costing mistake (he threw three interceptions in USC's four preseason scrimmages), Carroll will hear no shortage of backlash from local critics.
Of course, the ever-rosy coach isn't thinking that way.
"Think how cool this is going to be if this kid can hold it together," said Carroll. "And he gives us every indication that he will be able to."
His new star shares that optimism. "I don't even know how crazy it will be, but that won't faze me," Barkley said. "This is fun. This is easy. This is what I was made to do."
Upon watching him play, you may think the same thing.