All eyes were focused squarely on the quarterback position at USC this spring as the starting job was open for the taking. But with the March and April practices failing to produce a clear No. 1, there’s sure to be even more focus directed at a position battle that will pick back up in the fall with even greater intensity. With that in mind, here are some of the major offseason storylines when it comes to the Trojans quarterback unit.
Still up for grabs
The Trojans have had an incredible run of outstanding quarterbacks as of late, from Carson Palmer to Matt Leinart to Mark Sanchez and, most recently, Matt Barkley. But with Barkley -- a four-year starter -- now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, this spring marked the beginning of a new era at USC, as Lane Kiffin and Co. began their search for the next marquee Trojans signal caller. Battling it out were redshirt sophomores Cody Kessler and Max Wittek, as well as early-entrant freshman Max Browne, and while each had his standout moments, 15 practice sessions simply weren’t enough to determine a starter.
And so, with the competition still raging today, it’s going to be interesting to see who ultimately emerges atop the depth chart this fall, and how that selection affects the look and feel of USC’s offense. But with Browne, Kessler and Wittek each already having appeared to have made tremendous strides throughout the spring as a direct result of the competition, there’s reason to believe that as they go through the offseason workouts and continue to push each other, the Trojans are going to have a more-than-capable performer standing behind center against Hawaii on Aug. 29.
Consistency is key for Wittek
While all three candidates theoretically entered spring ball standing even, if there was a potential favorite going in, it had to be Wittek. Possessing a big arm and a 6-foot-4, 235-pound NFL build, he certainly looks the part, and more importantly, after filling in for an injured Barkley as the team’s starter for the final two games of the 2012 season, he also has the most game experience.
But after going down in the team’s third workout this past March, Wittek’s development certainly was stunted. Stepping back into action after a week away, however, the former Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei star did eventually return to form, looking particularly sharp down the stretch. Still, while he did shine at times, he also had his struggles. In the spring game, for example, there were moments when he looked like a seasoned vet as he completed 12 of 17 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns, but then again, he also threw two interceptions.
Possessing perhaps the most notable physical tools of the competing trio, Wittek’s next step is to become more consistent in terms of decision making and production.
Kessler with momentum
With Wittek out for a portion of the spring, no one made a bigger statement with his play than Kessler. Arriving at USC in the spring of 2011 after a prolific high school career at Bakersfield (Calif.) Centennial in which he passed for more than 2,800 yards and 36 touchdowns as a senior, he’s spent the majority of the previous two years on campus as a reserve quarterback and holder on the team’s PAT and field-goal units.
This spring, however, he made a serious case for a much larger role. Showing poise in the pocket and a strong command of the offense, he was easily the most efficient signal caller over the course of the fifteen workouts. Referred to as a “gamer” on more than one occasion by Kiffin, Kessler was particularly impressive in the team’s scrimmages, especially in the spring game finale when he completed 15 of 22 passes for 242 yards and three touchdowns. Just as significantly, he emerged as a leader whom the team seemed to rally around. Can Kessler keep his stellar play going through the summer and on into fall camp? If he can, it might be hard to keep him off the field.
Browne ahead of the curve
Graduating from Sammamish (Wash.) Skyline early and arriving at USC in time to take part in spring drills, Browne certainly didn’t look like your average freshman. A tremendous competitor with 6-5 height, a strong football IQ and arguably the best deep ball of the bunch, he made steady progress throughout the workouts, and there’s certainly reason for optimism when it comes to his future. But with his older counterparts performing at such a high level, the general thought among most onlookers this spring was that he’s just a tad behind them at this point. But with what he’s put on display already, in combination with his maturity and ability to soak up the playbook, there’s no telling how far he can take his game in the coming months.