|Peyton Manning (left), with father Archie and brother Eli, praises Matt Barkley as a QB. (AP)|
THIBODAUX, La. -- The setup hadn't changed from one year ago. The questions. The expectations. Not even the placement of the chair.
Only the name tag taped to the wall of the Century Room nestled underneath the bleachers of Nicholls State University's John L. Guidry Stadium changed at the annual Manning Passing Academy.
It's where then-Stanford junior quarterback Andrew Luck fielded questions about why he returned to play for the Cardinal as opposed to opting out for the NFL Draft where he would have been the likely No. 1 overall pick. Fast forward to Friday where USC quarterback Matt Barkley fielded very similar queries from curious journalists as to why he's returning for his senior season with the Trojans and passing up a payday for the NFL.
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The questions for Luck and Barkley all go back to when Peyton Manning made passing up millions of dollars to live it up for one more season in college the cool thing to do. Manning, Luck and Barkley, at the root of their decisions, all wanted the same things -- national championships, Heisman Trophies and No. 1 overall picks.
The case for Barkley to return runs deeper. Barkley put up the numbers last season with 39 touchdowns, 3,528 yards and only seven interceptions to thrust him into the conversation of being one of the top passers who should enter the NFL Draft. Much like Luck and Manning.
And what about that national championship contender part? That hasn't happened for Barkley thanks to USC's bowl ban by the NCAA for the Reggie Bush improper benefits scandal. Barkley said he looks forward to missing the Christmas holidays for once in the last few years. He also hopes he won't be celebrating on New Year's Eve either. He hopes football gets in the way.
"A lot of people will be saying [national championship or bust]," Barkley said. "In a sense, it kind of is. But when I look back on it [later in life], I won't have any regrets. Just to be able to play one more season and be bowl eligible for the first time in a couple of years with my best friends. I spend more time with my teammates than I do with my family. Those are my best friends. We're going to make it worth it, though."
Barkley said his approach hasn't changed in how to prepare for a season. The 6-foot-2, four-year starting quarterback said he's spent the offseason tirelessly working on his craft. He pointed immediately to increasing his decision-making ability on the field and making calls at the line of scrimmage.
"I don't even want to have to hesitate or think twice when we're changing a play," Barkley said, who sounds like the Mannings have already rubbed off on him.
The goals, though, have changed and are actually tangible since the Trojans' NCAA handcuffs have been thrown out into the Pacific as USC could easily be considered as the preseason favorite to reach the BCS title game in mid-January.
"We've got a lot of experience coming back, which is helpful," Barkley said. "Especially in leadership. You know how to handle these guys and motivate them. That helps. I'm just looking forward to spurring these guys on. We've got a lot of players and a lot of talent. We're heading on the right track. Keep our heads down and don't listen to all the hype. It doesn't mean anything. A preseason ranking? That's not going to help us win any games. That experience knowing that we haven't earned anything yet, you know you have to keep pushing for it."
Barkley said none of these goals would be possible had it not been for USC coach Lane Kiffin maintaining the program through the dark years.
"He's done a lot with the program to keep us in balance," Barkley said. "His play-calling alone, if I didn't like the way things were going with the offense or if I didn't like the way things were going [in general], I could have easily left. I have a deep respect for him as a play-caller. He's one of a kind. I've learned a lot from him on that end. We have a strong relationship and he's done a lot with the team to keep us tightly knit and close and pushing for a goal when it seemed like there wasn't a goal. He's definitely a big part of it. He was the perfect guy for the job to come in and replace coach [Pete] Carroll.
"Even though it seemed like a sucky situation, coming back as a Trojan as he was there before, he's done good things for us."
Barkley, like Luck, has Peyton's signed approval.
"Boy, you can see he's really talented and really calm and collected," Manning said. "I can certainly relate to his decision. He certainly had a choice. And, you know, everybody thinks they had him ranked and this is where he would have been drafted. Maybe he would have had a great combine and gone ahead of some of the other guys.
"I certainly commend him on wanting to go back and be a senior in college. There's no greater year than your senior year in college and let the college experience soak in and they're going to have a great team. ... I think it will pay dividends for him and he'll have a great year. And I know there will be a lot of talk about him with the draft between now and next April. I certainly see him being a top pro prospect."
Archie's too: "You'll be seeing him for a long time."
Barkley's decision to return may translate into another No. 1 overall pick who happened to roam the Manning Passing Academy. It also may translate into a Heisman Trophy, which would one-up Luck and Manning.
Yet playing for something other than a pat on the back or some dap means the most for Barkley.