What if I suggested Matt Barkley could be the best 2012 eligible player in college football?
Would you assume I’d gone crazy? That may be fair. Would you write this piece off as a token gesture a matter of weeks before the new college football season begins? I haven’t got time for that, honest. Or would you consider for a moment that maybe – just maybe – Matt Barkley might be a marginally better quarterback prospect than Andrew Luck? Is that possible?
I’ve spent a lot of time watching both quarterbacks and have a really difficult time separating them because in my mind they both have elite potential. Universally the media, fans and dare I say scouts have already anointed Luck the 2012 #1 overall pick in waiting. Stanford may have lost a fine head coach, but they maintain a strong offensive line and top-drawer running game. There are at least three receivers on their roster capable of making plays consistently. Basically, barring a freak and unfortunate injury, Andrew Luck is going to have another great year in 2011. Should that happen as expected, he will be the #1 pick. No doubt about it.
He may be the most perfectly acceptable quarterback prospect in the history of the game. From the NFL bloodlines, the professional character and personality, the near flawless mechanics, more than satisfactory production and a cluster of wins – there’s barely anything you’d change about the guy. The team that passes on Luck would have to be drafting Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne with the #1 overall pick to avoid the howls of derision.
I’m not trying to argue here that a team should pass on Luck (they won’t) or that I don’t think he will succeed in the NFL. He has a great shot at making it work as long as he isn’t drafted by an awful franchise like Cincinnati or Oakland. Unfortunately for Luck, both are terrifyingly realistic possibilities.
But certainly I think the bubble of warranted hype surrounding Luck is so impenetrable, that we dare not consider whether anyone else could be… better. It’s like a taboo among college football observers. To suggest someone is better than Luck is comparable to discussing the finer points of Brett Favre’s impact at Minnesota with Tavaris Jackson.
If Luck is fortunate enough to land in a better situation than Cincinnati/Oakland, even then he will still struggle to match the success of players who entered the league with much less hype or investment than he. The prospect that someone from the same draft class could end up having more success is not a pipe dream and neither is the possibility that someone could actually be a better football player given an equal or superior circumstance.
When I watch Matt Barkley I’m often amazed at how little hype he receives in comparison to Luck. From a mechanical and physical point of view, they are very similar. Both appear to be grounded individuals who you’d be happy to have as the ‘face of your franchise’. Both appear to have been systematically trained for the NFL from a young age. Both have a level of athleticism which you don’t often see from quarterbacks with their build.
Luck was lauded as a successful red-shirt freshman starter – and posted a stat list that read 56% completions, 13 touchdowns and 2575 yards. In seven games he threw for fewer than 200 yards as Stanford leaned on a brilliant running game. He had three games where he threw less than 50%, including a 33% game against California where he went 10/30 for 157 yards and an interception. Stanford lost 34-28.
Luck started 2010 in a similar fashion, looking far from elite against UCLA in game two (46% completions) and he wasn’t completely polished against Notre Dame a fortnight later. However, as the year developed so did Stanford’s quarterback and by the end of the season he was regularly throwing 80% games and leading his team to victory in the Orange Bowl. It was that level of progress that convinced me Luck warranted the hype – you never expect a player to avoid a learning curve. Once he’d mastered the offense, the pace of the game and his own limitations, he began to play at a level that warranted huge praise.
Matt Barkley didn’t have a red-shirt year at USC, he started all but one game as a true freshman. In just his second start in college football, he led a game winning drive to beat a tough Ohio State team on the road. He didn’t lose a game as a true freshman until Halloween at Oregon. His two other defeats that year came against Luck’s Stanford and a sickener against Arizona and Nick Foles.
He had some tough games, as did Luck, but managed a superior completion rate of 60% and threw a similar amount of touchdowns (15). Turnovers were much greater (14 compared to Luck’s four) but Barkley was asked to do a lot more as an instant starter than Luck as a red-shirt.
As a true-sophomore, Barkley’s game continued to progress at rapid rate. He improved his completion percentage to 63%, made eleven more touchdowns and continued to act as the focal point of the offense. Although he played behind an offensive line containing elite college players such as Matt Kalil and Tyron Smith, he wasn’t aided by the same well-oiled running game Luck enjoys at Stanford. Barkley’s top target was a true freshman receiver called Robert Woods – insanely talented, but learning on the run.
Barkley’s performance as an immediate two-year starter have been nothing short of incredible. There was no pause for thought at USC and let’s not forget that in between two very succesful years he’d had to cope with controversy in the form of strict NCAA sanctions and a high profile coaching change. Barkley hasn’t just taken that in his stride, he’s sprinting at full pace.
In what was a beautifully under rated meeting last year, the pair met in a classic encounter that Stanford won thanks to a field goal in the dying embers 37-35. Barkley matched Luck throw-for-throw. Whenever Stanford’s QB asked the question, his opposite number shot back the answer without hesitation.
When I go back and look at the tape, I end up asking myself a couple of questions. Firstly, if this was a Luck vs Barkley boxing match decided on points – who would’ve won? Secondly, who is making the more complex and challenging throws? Who is facing the most pressure in the pocket? Who is being forced to make clutch plays?
In both circumstances, the answer was Matt Barkley. Judge for yourself…
Focus on the second video and Barkley’s tape. Look at the play on 2:51 where he pumps to sell the linebacker and throws a dart into coverage, picking out his target ahead of two defensive backs. Check out the pinpoint accuracy to dissect two defenders for a touchdown at 3:57 and at 8:10. The touch and placement at 4:25 is perfect (the dropped catch is not). The play with his legs at 6:52 flashes his athleticism and the throw across his body at 8:51 proves he can improvise, feel pressure and make a quick judgement. It doesn’t get much more clutch than 3rd and long on the road, down a score and making the completion at 10:08.
Yet the most impressive play in the whole video – the one that smashes the rest out of the park and why portrays a perfect example of why I rate the guy so highly, is the final play on the video. It’s an incompletion through the hands of Robert Woods. Needing a score to take a late fourth quarter lead Barkley looks to his left and fakes, moves to his second read and doesn’t like it, goes to a third read and again doesn’t release the ball, goes back to his second read and throws an impossibly perfect pass to the back of a crowded end zone splitting coverage and nailing what should’ve been a potential game winning score.
Should’ve been, but wasn’t. Stanford won the game.
As I said at the start of the piece, I’m not trying to make a negative case for Andrew Luck. I think you’re talking about two elite quarterback prospects, one is assumed to be the greatest college QB since Peyton Manning and the other gets a decent press, but nowhere near a comparable level of hype. Both have started at a young age and impressed, although Barkley has faced (in my view) a much greater baptism of fire.
There’s every chance Barkley won’t declare for the 2012 draft knowing he’ll get the opportunity to play in a bowl game next year and compete for a PAC12 title. He’ll also be well aware that the competition to go first overall in 2013 will be weaker – and some players do see being the #1 pick as a worthwhile enough achievement to impact their decision on whether to declare.
Even so, both are draft eligible next year. A lot can happen in a single season to impact upon grades and opinions but with a few weeks to go until football finally returns, I’m not opposed to the idea that Barkley may be the better player.