USC sophomore Cody Kessler has the same illustrious background as many Trojans quarterbacks: five-star recruit, top quarterback from the state of California, high school All-American, and the list goes on. After fellow sophomore Max Wittek won the role of Matt Barkley‘s backup last year, it looked like Kessler’s future at USC might not be as bright, but a strong spring has him right in the middle of the race to be the next USC Trojans quarterback.
Kessler and Wittek were both top-ranked quarterbacks in the 2011 recruiting class, and while only one would be the Trojans’ quarterback of the future, they each said they weren’t afraid of a little competition.
At first, there wasn’t much competition: they redshirted behind Barkley as freshmen. Last offseason, they went head-to-head in a hotly contested race to be a backup, with Wittek gaining the edge.
Wittek didn’t have Barkley’s California boy looks, but he had the laidback demeanor, the ease with the media, and the pedigree: another successful link in Mater Dei’s quarterback chain to USC. Even before he’d officially won the role of Barkley’s first backup, he carried himself with the confidence and the swagger of a USC starting quarterback — until he got the job.
When Barkley’s season ended with a shoulder injury against UCLA, it was Wittek’s chance to prove he was the rightful heir to one of the most visible positions in college football. He didn’t.
He played well against Notre Dame, but it’s easier to get pumped for the last game of the regular season, at home, against a respected rival, than it is to bring one’s best in a second-rate bowl game that the entire program seemed uninterested in attending. It was USC’s first bowl game since 2009, and it was a colossal flop.
Wittek’s one touchdown, three interception Sun Bowl performance was bad enough, but the lack of leadership, amid rumors of unrest in the USC locker room, was worse. If Wittek wanted this to be his team, that was his chance to show it. Instead, he mailed in a discouraging performance that had fans crossing fingers and toes that incoming freshman Max Browne would bring a little more spark.
This spring, Browne brought the deep ball, and Wittek seems to be back to his gunslinging ways, but the fans and media are watching Kessler. When Wittek missed a week with a sprained MCL, Kessler took advantage of the extra reps to impress the coaches — something Wittek didn’t really do when he had his chance to start last fall.
There’s still not much separation between the three, and there may never be, but when August rolls around, Lane Kiffin should announce Kessler as the 2013 USC Trojans quarterback.
Browne might be the most exciting and physically gifted, but he’s young and could benefit from a year or two to acclimate to college (he graduated high school in December, a semester early) and add some bulk to his 6’5″ frame.
Wittek has the most starting experience — all two games of it — but with one good start and one bad, the experience factor probably won’t count for much. He’s been billed as having a bigger upside than Kessler, and the high-risk, high-reward reputation has held true much of the spring. He’s completing a lot of his passes, but he’s completing some to the opposing defense as well.
Kessler has the same amount of time in the program as Wittek, but he just might have more heart. He committed to USC after Wittek, knowing he was going to have to work really, really hard to eventually win the job, and that’s what he’s done. He’s been portrayed as the “safe” choice, but that could be exactly what the Trojans need to get back on track: someone who works hard every day to do whatever it takes to win games.
And if “whatever it takes” just so happens to be throwing a 70-yard touchdown to Marqise Lee on his first pass like Kessler did in Saturday’s spring game, even better.
Browne will get his chance. Wittek already had his. It’s time to see what Cody Kessler can do.