LOS ANGELES -- Matt Barkley's throws looked so tight Wednesday that the only noun hanging in the air too long was uncertainty. Regarding his former team.
"It looks pretty rough to tell you the truth," said Southern California 's record-breaking quarterback as he left his much-celebrated pro day.
Barkley removed a lot of the doubt about his pro future throwing crisp, accurate, strong, even deep balls for NFL scouts with his repaired shoulder. As for the team he is leaving behind? They are missing him, to start with. The Trojans are also installing a new defense, welcoming four new coaches and fighting off the lingering effects of a dreadful end to 2012.
Unencumbered by having to play a college game next week, Barkley expanded on the Trojans' near-term future.
"It's kind of up in the air to tell you the truth," he said. "We definitely need some leaders to step up. I know this year's seniors were a strong group of leaders. It's kind of whose going to be that leader? ... I think maybe the sanctions still might take a toll."
It can be argued that losing 30 recruits over three years -- the NCAA sanctions still have another year to run -- already have had an impact. The Trojans scaled back hitting in practice last season because of injuries and roster depletions. The defense that gave up 417 points and looked shaky against the spread has been handed over to veteran Clancy Pendergast, one of those new coaches. The entire secondary has to be replaced. The offensive line that returns four starters has to be "fixed," according to coach Lane Kiffin.
That's Lane Kiffin who begins 2013 on the hot seat.
That was a reminder as Barkley left a USC practice field for probably the final time, there needed to some sort of orchestral crescendo. That was it. For the first time in a long time, the Trojans are looking at a quarterback battle. The line of succession has been mostly uninterrupted since Carson Palmer started the 2000 season.
It was 10 years ago that USC had lost one Heisman winner (Palmer) and replaced him with another. Matt Leinart emerged out of a now legendary 2003 spring battle to become the Pac-10 player of the year (2003), Heisman winner (2004) and top 10 draft choice (following 2005).
Aaron Corp was the starter coming out of spring in 2009. Barkley became the starter shortly before the season after Corp was injured in fall drills. He never gave up the job becoming a four-year starter. Is there another Palmer/Leinart/Sanchez/Booty/Barkley in the house to continue the line of succession?
"I don't think that's [quarterback] the huge and only storyline right now," Kiffin said after watching pro day. "We weren't changing the defense [in 2003]. We were rolling and somebody had to replace the Heisman winner."
Now somebody has to replace the Pac-12's career passing leader -- and spackle in holes all over the program.
Career passes between sophomores Max Wittek, Cody Kessler and early-enrolling freshman Max Browne? Seventy-one. Sixty-nine of those belong to Wittek whose lasting image is missing on 23 of 37 throws -- with three interceptions -- in the Sun Bowl.
"Max [Wittek] is a good quarterback," said defensive back Nikell Robey, a pro day participant, "It wasn't the best day for anybody."
Wittek remains the early favorite in this rare USC spring battle. The other Max (Browne) is a national high school player of the year from Sammamish, Wash. Kiffin offered all the platitudes about maturity and potential, then added, "I went to his state championship game. That's not exactly Texas 6-A football. He played great, his team was coached great but there were a lot of kids about this big."
Kiffin raised his hand about 4½ feet off the ground.
Never let it be said that USC football lacks in hyperbole.
Truth is, it may be a situation where any USC quarterback is going to be at a disadvantage. That probation, it can be argued, has "worked." The spring roster numbers approximately 69 scholarship players, six under the probationary limit of 75 and 16 under the normal NCAA maximum of 85.
"Matt and Reggie [Bush] -- it was a circus out here," Kiffin said, reminiscing about the days when USC's pro day was a feeding frenzy for NFL scouts.
"The difference is the amount. That's where it has changed, the volume where there legitimately were 16 guys working out [on pro day], there's 11 guys picked in a single draft. I coached the Senior Bowl when I was with the Raiders. We had 10 USC players at the Senior Bowl."
The Trojans petered out in the second half, losing five of their six games. You've read it here before, but USC became the first AP preseason No. 1 to finish unranked since the early 1960s.
"Obviously, I didn't coach very well," said Kiffin who then went on to recite a litany of 2012 downers.
- The road loss at Arizona on Oct. 27. "You're out of the national championship. Our players and everybody around them [are saying], 'I'm not going to Miami.' "
- The competitive but ultimately embarrassing loss to Oregon the next week, 62-51. "We're right there with Oregon."
- Even before Barkley got injured in the UCLA game, the Bruins were up 24-0 perhaps signaling a switch in L.A. city dominance.
"When you take this job there is pressure," he said. "Whether you have 85 guys, 65 guys whatever, every game is always going to be that way. We created that by being preseason No. 1. They [pollsters] didn't do that for no reason. We created that and obviously we didn't handle it."
The last player off the field -- his life and career in front of him -- all but agreed.
"It will be interesting," Barkley said, "to see what happens."