LOS ANGELES -- When Mitch Mustain left Arkansas for Southern California nearly four years ago, he imagined a very different course for his college career.
Thanks to Matt Barkley's high ankle sprain, Mustain might get a Hollywood ending after all.
The high school superstar who became the Razorbacks' starting quarterback as a freshman will wrap up his senior season at bowl-banned USC over the next two weeks with precious little tape to show NFL scouts.
But after nearly three years as a dutiful backup to Mark Sanchez and Barkley, Mustain has a chance to go out as the Trojans' starter -- probably for Saturday's marquee game against Notre Dame, and maybe for the finale against archrival UCLA.
"There was always a chance it would never happen, but I've always looked forward to the chance, however slim it may be," Mustain said after practice this week. "It's what I've been practicing for, and it's why I stuck around this year. I'm ready to go."
Although Mustain hoped to be holding a Heisman Trophy this season instead of a clipboard, he claims he wouldn't change a thing about his decision to leave Arkansas in early 2007 after Razorbacks offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn -- Mustain's high school coach -- split with head coach Houston Nutt.
Mustain also declined the chance to transfer to another school with immediate eligibility earlier this year when the NCAA leveled hefty sanctions against the Trojans.
Much of the frustration would evaporate if Mustain puts up quality performances in USC's two biggest rivalry games. Coach Lane Kiffin might wait until game time before deciding whether Barkley can suit up, but Mustain doesn't care if he only gets one minute of notice.
"I don't know if I'd be preparing quite right if I didn't have that sense (of being the starter)," said Mustain, who played the second half of last week's loss at Oregon State after Barkley's injury. "If Matt hops up and gets ready to go, that's fine ... but I'm assuming I'll be (starting)."
Mustain hasn't lost a start since his junior year of high school, but he hasn't started a football game since his year at Arkansas.
To shorten a long, sordid story of conflicting loyalties and power struggles, Mustain joined the Razorbacks in a wave of fanfare as the nation's top high school quarterback. He went 8-0 as their starter, but lost the job late in the season and eventually followed Malzahn out of Fayetteville.
Mustain followed the westward path of Damian Williams, his high school teammate and receiver who also transferred to USC. After sitting out a season, Mustain sat behind Sanchez in 2008 -- and last year, coach Pete Carroll ruled he had finished third in a three-man derby with Barkley and Aaron Corp.
Barkley beat out Mustain again when Kiffin returned to Los Angeles early this year. Mustain has appeared in just 16 games in three seasons with USC, going 20 of 34 for 165 yards this year while throwing a pass in just five games.
But Kiffin senses a thirst in Mustain that hasn't been quenched by nearly four years spent mostly on the sideline. After Wednesday night's practice, Kiffin praised Mustain's work this week as "phenomenal."
"(That's) the best we've seen him ever look since we've been here," Kiffin added. "It probably says a lot for a guy who has had the chance to prepare now for two days and get almost all the No. 1 snaps. You can see him taking advantage of it. He seems to be doing his best off the field as well. He was up in there by himself extremely late (Tuesday) night watching film."
There's still a possibility Mustain might not get that chance. Although most high ankle sprains typically require several weeks of recovery, Barkley showed up to watch Wednesday's practice without his crutches and walking boot.
"It's been improving every day, which is great," Barkley said. "We'll see how it is by the end of the week."
Mustain doesn't exactly chuckle when asked if his last two games will be an audition of sorts for the NFL, which has seen precious little of him in the last four years. The once-surefire pro prospect knows all about Matt Cassel, who never started a game at USC behind Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, but eventually became the Kansas City Chiefs' franchise quarterback last season.
"That's part of it, but right now, this is for here," Mustain said. "We want that win. We want to be able to walk away from the Coliseum one last time with a win, and that's what we're playing for."