Amid the many pressures Steve Sarkisian must face as the enterprising new football coach at USC, this question must be asked:
Can he really risk a full-fledged quarterback controversy?
Cody Kessler is the engaging incumbent at the position, popular with his teammates and fresh off an MVP performance in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Max Browne is the up-and-coming redshirt freshman, still unproven but described by some as having a higher upside.
The easiest thing for a new coach to do would have been to announce the job is Kessler’s to lose. Kessler had a solid sophomore season and seems to be only now settling in and coming into his own.
But Sarkisian didn’t do that. He quickly emphasized that all jobs on the team “are open,” including quarterback, and he reminded people that as the former coach at Washington, he was very aware of Browne’s high school exploits and the fact that he had been the National Player of the Year at Skyline High in Sammamish, Wash.
So now here the QBs are at Sarkisian’s first spring practice in downtown Los Angeles, sharing the reps, taking turns throwing crisp spirals to a variety of the Trojans’ talented skill players. Kessler seems even more confident and self-assured than he did a year ago, but Browne, who is taller with a more NFL-like body, is right there, competing with him play after play and showing off a lovely touch on balls thrown downfield.
The longer this goes, the better the chance of Sarkisian waiting until sometime in the fall to anoint a starting quarterback. And allowing a long, hot summer of controversy to sit there and simmer.
Pete Carroll would be aghast. Sarkisian's mentor, the former highly-successful USC coach who now coaches the Seattle Seahawks, considered quarterback controversies to be the root canals of football. He tried to avoid them at all costs.
Remember that horrible 2007 loss to 41-point underdog Stanford? I know, I know -- if you’re a longtime Trojans fan, you’ve tried to forget it. But early in the second half of that game, quarterback John David Booty broke a finger on his throwing hand. Amazingly, Carroll left him in and even had him attempting long, looping passes down the center of the field, a couple of which were intercepted.
Why? Some thought it was because he didn’t yet trust backup Mark Sanchez. Others felt it was Carroll’s fear that Sanchez, who had flashed considerable ability in practice, would come in and play so well that it would create a rousing quarterback controversy.
An even better example came a couple of years later, when Matt Barkley, who had surprisingly won the job as a freshman, was injured in a terrific early road victory at Ohio State. Aaron Corp, who had demonstrated such unusual running ability in the spring that Carroll had predicted he might rush for 600 yards if he started, had to take over the position in an important conference game against Washington and, coincidentally enough, a young coach named Sarkisian.
So, given the fact Corp’s strength was his ability to run, you would have thought some quarterback running plays might have been included in the game plan, right? Wrong. Strangely, Corp was limited to mainly handing the ball off and never was used on the rolling options that had been so effective in the spring.
Why? Even after that stunning, disappointing loss in Seattle, Carroll never fully explained it. But to those who had observed the coach closely through the years, the answer seemed obvious. If he had allowed Corp to run and the kid had looked good doing it, there was a chance it could have created ... you got it, a lively quarterback controversy.
That’s how much Carroll dreaded the idea. He apparently preferred to gamble, thinking he could win the game without utilizing Corp’s one obvious talent, to the possibility of facing the inevitable questions about whom should start the rest of the season, Barkley or Corp.
If Sarkisian is as leery of a potential quarterback problem as Carroll, it hasn’t been evident yet. But then, this is only the second week of spring practice, and nothing at this point is written in cardinal and gold stone.
It certainly will be interesting to watch how the new coach handles this delicate situation as the spring progresses.
Is Sarkisian merely allowing it to play out, knowing all along that Kessler -- the more proven, logical choice -- will be his guy in 2014? Or is he quietly considering making his first major impact with the Trojans by going with an untested Browne, who just might be the better quarterback down the road?
Does the new guy play it safe or take a big risk?
Everyone at USC will be more than a little anxious to find out. You suspect a certain ex-Trojans coach now working in Seattle will be, too.