When Steve Sarkisian took over as USC’s new head coach in December, one of his first orders of business was to declare the starting quarterback job -- along with every other position -- up for grabs. And so, with spring ball set to begin on March 11, the battle for one of college football’s most coveted titles is now less than two weeks away from kicking off.
Of course, it was exactly a year ago when one of the major storylines at USC was eerily similar, as rising third-year sophomores Cody Kessler and Max Wittek, along with highly touted freshman Max Browne, entered the spring set to duke it out for the same role. It was initially a three-pronged race before the two upperclassmen jumped to the front, and the race extended all the way through the first two games of the season until Kessler was finally declared the full-time starter.
Things are a little different this time around. First of all, Wittek is no longer in the equation. Set to graduate in a few months, he has already announced that he will transfer to a yet-to-be determined program. That means a greater number of reps for Kessler and Browne, as well as Jalen Greene, an early entrant freshman out of Gardena (Calif.) Serra who arrives to make it another three-man struggle -- at least in theory.
The most dramatic variable that separates this competition from last year’s is the fact that all three quarterbacks will not only be going head-to-head, but they’ll be doing so while in the process of learning the ins and the outs of Sarkisian’s fast-paced, no-huddle offense. And while many of the specifics concerning the system are still somewhat of a mystery other than the offense’s change in tempo and its pro-style foundation, one thing that is certain is that the quarterback who adapts the fastest and shows the most comfort will be the one who gets the nod.
One contender unlikely to be fazed by any of the pressure is Kessler. Emerging atop the quarterback derby last season, he knows a thing or two about how to handle a competitive atmosphere. That, and the valuable experience that he gained while leading the Trojans to a 10-4 record in 2013, makes him the favorite in this discussion.
Somewhat inconsistent initially, Kessler raised his level of performance as the season progressed, particularly after Lane Kiffin’s departure. Ending with an outstanding performance in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, Kessler completed 65.4 percent of his passes for 2,968 yards and 20 touchdowns with seven interceptions.
Those are impressive numbers, but -- with sky-high expectations entrenched at USC -- Kessler has had his critics at times.
For example, some have wondered if he poses enough of a running threat to help the offense reach its full potential. But according to Sarkisian, the perceived requirement of a running quarterback is one of the great misconceptions of his attack. After all, Washington starter Keith Price netted a modest 108 yards rushing in 2013.
Kessler has also developed into one of the unquestioned leaders of the team. If everything else is equal, it’s hard to imagine the coaches not factoring Kessler's leadership into the final decision.
If there is a player who has the resume and poise to pose a serious challenge to Kessler, it’s Browne. He threw for over 4,500 yards in his senior season at Sammamish (Wash.) Skyline and earned Gatorade National Football Player of the Year honors -- all while playing in a shotgun-based attack that shared some similarities to what Sarkisian is bringing to USC.
Possessing prototypical 6-foot-5 height to go along with his strong overall skill set, Browne’s raw talent is undeniable, but the big question revolves around whether or not he’s physically and mentally ready to carry the load yet, especially after redshirting last season. But if all of the pieces of the puzzle start coming together for him this spring, watch out.
Then there is Greene. A true dual-threat signal-caller who passed for over 2,500 yards and ran for over 1,200 yards as a senior, the talented lefty can add a whole new dimension to the offense.
Still, it’s a lot to ask a freshman a couple months removed from high school to jump right in and take control of a college offense, so the possibility of him making a serious run at the starting job appears to be a long shot. Regardless, this spring will be invaluable for him with an eye toward the future. And, without the added pressure that his counterparts will have heaped upon their shoulders, perhaps he can surprise.
In any case, with the potential fate of the Trojans’ 2014 season lying in the balance, it’s safe to say that plenty of attention will be paid to all three candidates this spring. Undoubtedly, no one is more eager to see how it plays out than Sarkisian.