Top College Prospect Plays For Jesus
Autographed photographs of Matt Leinart and Colt Brennan hang on the wall in Bruce Rollinson’s office at Mater Dei High School.
In their inscriptions, Leinart and Brennan thank Rollinson for his guidance during their high school careers. They are among nine quarterbacks he has coached who went on to play in college during his 19 seasons as the coach at Mater Dei.
Yet of all the quarterbacks to play at the Catholic school, the best could be the 17-year-old junior Matt Barkley. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Barkley is rated as one of the top recruits for the class of 2009. Last month, he quietly committed to Southern California, where his father, Les, played water polo in college.
He chose U.S.C. over U.C.L.A., California, Oregon, Florida and Notre Dame.
“Some people say it’s early for me, but I’ve been playing high school football for three years now,” said the soft-spoken Barkley, one of seven players in Rivals.com’s top 100 prospects for the class of 2009 to have pledged to play for the Trojans. “I kind of know what I want.”
Barkley became the first freshman to start at Mater Dei since Todd Marinovich in 1983. Brennan, who went on to star at Hawaii, started one season, and Leinart, who won the Heisman Trophy at U.S.C., started two seasons.
In December, Barkley was named the Gatorade national football player of the year, the first nonsenior to win the award in its three decades of existence.
“Everybody wants to do comparisons like, Is he as good as Leinart or Brennan?” Rollinson said of Barkley. “Well, Matt Barkley is in a different category because he beat out the competition as a 14-year-old freshman. His composure, his maturity, it’s pretty extraordinary.”
A pro-style quarterback who thrives in the pocket, Barkley completed 63 percent of his passes last season for 3,576 yards, with 35 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. But he has yet to win a high school championship.
Barkley is appreciative of the publicity and accolades, but neither seems to motivate him as much as his Christian faith.
“Jesus Christ is No. 1 to me,” said Barkley, who has a 3.9 grade point average. “That’s who I play for.”
Barkley attends Rockharbor, a nondenominational church of 6,000 in Costa Mesa, Calif. He occasionally plays guitar in the church’s high school worship band and helps lead Mater Dei’s pregame team mass by reading Bible verses.
Last month, Barkley attended a regional Christian conference in Los Angeles. His Christian faith is so paramount that Rollinson said he believed that Barkley committed to the Trojans in part to stay close to Rockharbor, which is about 40 miles from U.S.C.’s campus.
“He’s not one to talk about it a lot, but his faith is what carries him,” Rollinson said. “He is literally a powerful, powerful Christian young man. He doesn’t get nervous about a whole lot of things because he has the ability to turn it over, pray about it and then move on.”
Eric Johnson, who is Rockharbor’s interim high school director, has known Barkley since eighth grade and said he often took his teammates to church with him.
“He just has a genuine love for the Lord and for sharing that with people,” Johnson said in a telephone interview. “He’s truly set a great example, but also desires to see other people follow the Lord as well.
“It can kind of be cliché to talk about faith, but Matt just genuinely lives it out every day. It’s cool to see that.”
Steve Clarkson, Barkley’s private quarterback coach, said Barkley’s faith was evident in his work ethic and leadership.
“If Matt’s not in class, he’s in the weight room or on the field,” Clarkson said in a telephone interview.
“You’re not going to find the guy at some local party or in the back parking lot of some football stadium with a can of beer. That’s not who he is.”
Clarkson, who has worked with Barkley since he was a freshman entering Mater Dei, projects him as a future first-round pick in the N.F.L. draft.
Clarkson has worked with numerous N.F.L. quarterbacks, including the first-round selections Leinart, Ben Roethlisberger and J. P. Losman, and said Barkley had the potential to be the best quarterback he had ever tutored.
“He’s certainly well on his way,” Clarkson said. “His skills are off the charts.”
Barkley can easily throw a football 50 yards at a height of 6 feet, Clarkson said.
“He’s got a much stronger arm than like a Tom Brady,” Clarkson said. “He’s got that kind of power, but he’s a little bit more nimble. He’s kind of like a cross between Joe Montana and Brady. That would probably be the best way to describe him.”
While Brennan played at Hawaii, he twice returned to Mater Dei during spring break and worked out with Barkley, whom he described as “a big-time quarterback.”
“I’m just pretty much in awe of his physical ability and talent at such a young age,” Brennan said in a telephone interview. “He’s already ready to play in college. He’s just a man amongst boys out there. He’s an unbelievable player.”
Such praise is hardly new to Rollinson, who said he knew he would probably add a photograph of Barkley next to Leinart and Brennan someday.
“I imagine it’ll hang right up there,” Rollinson said.