The two words that came out of Matt Barkley's mouth last winter in a press conference at USC stirred emotion and anticipation for the fans of a program that had been beaten down by the loss of a legendary coach and sanctions, but were now right on the cusp of grabbing it all back. Barkley announcing that he would be returning for the his senior season as a Trojan pretty much sealed the deal that the Trojans would be the top ranked team in the nation going into the 2012 college football season in their first season of bowl eligibility after two years of being banned.
A 7-6 season capped off with an embarrassing loss to Georgia Tech in frigid El Paso while he watched in street clothes from the sidelines, assuredly wasn't the "unfinished business" that Barkley was talking about back in December of 2011. The only thing that was almost more disappointing than the Trojans' performance as a team was Barkley's individual performance. Barkley failed to match his numbers from his junior year across the board and tossed a career high 15 interceptions, including 2 in each of their losses to Oregon, Stanford and UCLA that may have cost the Trojans each game. What was supposed to be a dream season ended up being a nightmare in pretty much every way.
Maybe if he looked back at recent high-profile Pac-12 quarterbacks who have turned down the NFL Draft as juniors even though they were projected as possibly being the top pick, maybe he would have seen this coming.
The rejoicing of Husky fans in the Winter of 2009 when junior quarterback Jake Locker turned down the NFL Draft despite being considered by some to be the top prospect in the country was maybe even louder than that of Trojans fans when Barkley pledged to come back. Locker had yet to have a winning season as a Husky and his return was considered to be an integral piece of the puzzle in getting the Huskies getting back to the top of the conference. Plus, Locker would have another season under Steve Sarkisian, who was regarded as a bit of a QB guru and along with more games to showcase his improved passing skills that seemed to improve with each game his junior year.
Much like Barkley's heroic but ultimately unfortunate senior season, Locker's senior campaign in 2010 was wholly disappointing from an individual standpoint as he regressed in almost every stat, got hurt and led his team to a 7-6 record. However, Locker was able to lead his team to a bit of redemption by getting them to their first bowl game since 2002 and a win over a ranked Nebraska team. Yet, after the season, many of the same people who had projected locker as the top pick of the 2010 draft then projected him as potentially falling to the second round.
The Titans selected Locker with the eighth pick of the 2011 draft in a move that surprised many, but Locker ultimately likely missed out on millions due to the minimizing of rookie contracts and his descent from the very top of the draft. Returning for his senior season ultimately was an ultimate sacrifice for Locker as he hurt his own stock, but the silver lining was that he helped get the Huskies back to respectability.
Barkley could also have looked back at fellow Trojan Matt Leinart, who like him returned for senior glory that ended up hurting his draft stock, though one can't really begin to fully compare Barkley and Leinart's senior seasons they were similar in a few ways. Some of Leinart's stats regressed, the Trojans failed to capture the national championship that everyone expected and his draft stock fell. In Leinart's case it was the draft stock that hurt the most, as he was almost assuredly going to be taken first by the 49ers in 2005 draft and instead fell to the tenth pick in the 2006 draft where he landed on a Cardinals team that was moribund at the time and in transition.
While the conundrum of whether or not to declare for the NFL Draft early or to return for a senior season is a good problem for a quarterback to have, judging from the recent history of those that have chosen to within the conference it is still a problem. By coming back, Leinart, Locker and Barkley opened up flaws in their games to critics and scouts while Locker and Barkley also overinflated the expectations of fans that ultimately ended in disappointment.
It is still to be seen just how much Barkley's tough senior season will affect his draft status, but it definitely looks like it will quite a bit as Barkley fell from the top prospect on the board to a potential second round prospect on the boards of many pundits. Barkley will of course publicly say that he in no way regrets returning for his senior season, but it is hard to imagine the he doesn't at least just a little bit.
With the amount of good, young quarterbacks that are in the conference right now, it's likely that another Pac-12 quarterback like Brett Hundley will be facing the decision of whether or not to come back for their senior year and chase additional college glory or jump to the NFL early very soon. I have to think that many agents and NFL scouts will point to Barkley as an example of why you might want to strike while the iron is hot.