USC Trojans: Jalen Greene

The USC Trojans came out in helmets and shorts on Friday and took part in a practice session that head coach Steve Sarkisian said mirrored what the team's Thursday workouts will look like during the season.

An extremely light practice that was around an hour-and-a-half long, Sarkisian said that with the opener coming up in just over a week, the primary focus was on working out the kinks and making sure everyone was on the same page.

USC offseason storylines: QB

June, 24, 2014
Jun 24
7:00
AM PT
Here's a look at the top quarterback storylines for USC this offseason:

Quarterback
All eyes were focused on the quarterback position at USC this past spring, and that was for good reason. With the coveted starting role declared up for grabs by new head coach Steve Sarkisian, the offseason departure of Max Wittek and the unveiling of an up-tempo offense run out of the shotgun, there were more than a few factors in play that made this the group the one to watch throughout the March and April practice sessions.

Ultimately, it was fourth-year junior Cody Kessler who, somewhat unsurprisingly, emerged atop the depth chart in the highly-publicized position battle, but there’s still plenty to keep your eye on in terms of offseason storylines when it comes to this unit.

Kessler in charge
[+] EnlargeCody Kessler, Max Tuerk
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesExperience helped Cody Kessler win USC's starting QB job in the spring.
While the fact that Kessler, who started all 14 games for the Trojans in 2013, won out in a competition against a pair of inexperienced youngsters in second-year freshman Max Browne and early-entrant freshman Jalen Greene wasn’t exactly a revelation in itself, the decisive way in which he ran away with the job was.

Making a seamless transition into the new offense, he picked right up where he left off after a MVP performance in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, drawing praise from Sarkisian for his decision-making and arm strength.

Just as impressive, however, was his continued growth as a team leader – another important variable that played a part in the head coach’s decision.

And credit to Sarkisian for announcing his verdict when he did. Forced to share the quarterback job with Wittek through the Trojans’ first two games in 2013 under the previous coaching regime, Kessler admitted to having been rattled by the constant state of uncertainty. By announcing Kessler as the starter in the spring this time around, Sarkisian has allowed his veteran passer to get a whole summer under his belt as the man in charge of what he can now safely call his team.

If the early portion of summer drills are any indication, that move is already paying off, as Kessler has looked confident and sharp. And just how far he continues to come along in the coming weeks will undoubtedly play a significant role in determining just how efficient the USC offense is in Year 1 under Sarkisian.

Browne still competing
Kessler was the undisputed winner this past spring, but the young and talented Browne is right behind him. Kessler knows that he can’t let up for a second, particularly once fall camp starts up -- when Sarkisian said he expects the competition to “wage on.”

Browne, who has improved steadily since his initial arrival at USC as one of the most heralded members of the Class of 2013, bulked up in the spring and had more zip on his throws, but he still couldn’t manage to overtake his more seasoned counterpart.

For his part, however, Browne has said and done everything that anyone could possibly ask of him since Sarkisian announced his decision. He plans to continue to compete each and every day, and he's also made a point of putting the team ahead of himself by embracing the responsibilities that come with being the backup, a fact that has been noticeable during summer workouts when he’s been observed signaling plays into Kessler during some of the team’s 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 periods.

Ultimately, the possibility of Browne overtaking Kessler prior to the 2014 season would have to be considered a long shot. But he certainly has an extremely bright future at USC. Until his time comes, however, the Trojans would appear to have a very solid No. 2 option who will also continue to provide more than enough pressure on Kessler to ensure that he never falls asleep at the wheel.

Greene a glimpse of the future?
While it was Kessler and Browne who garnered the bulk of the attention in the competition for the No. 1 job in the spring, the most intriguing participant in the quarterback derby just might have been Greene, who arrived at USC this past January from local powerhouse Gardena (California) Serra.

As a true dual-threat quarterback, he provides a much different look at the position in USC’s offensive attack than Kessler and Browne, who both fit into the pocket-passer category. So, the big question is does Greene exemplify the kind of signal-caller that Sarkisian, ideally, wants at the helm of his offense? After all, everyone has seen the kind of success that fast-paced offenses like those featured at Oregon have had with athletic quarterbacks running the show.

Throw in the fact that USC seems to be targeting other dual-threat passers on the recruiting trail, such as Westlake’s (California) Malik Henry in the Class of 2016, and it’s not a stretch to assume that Sarkisian might have big plans down the line for a quarterback like Greene.

A strong-armed lefty, he made tremendous strides from the first practice to the No. 15 practice this past spring, drawing heavy praise from USC offensive coordinator Clay Helton as a result. Still, there’s little doubt that he still has a ways to go before he can be considered a serious contender for the starting job. But with the promise that he’s already shown, and where Sarkisian and the offense seem to be headed, maybe Browne isn’t the only quarterback to keep close tabs on with an eye toward the future.
Going from high school football star to wet-behind-the-ears newcomer at a place like USC, all in the blink of an eye, isn’t exactly an easy transition for any early-entry freshman to make. But Jalen Greene was more prepared than most when he arrived on campus in January.

[+] EnlargeJalen Greene
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsEarly-entry freshman QB Jalen Greene impressed in his first spring with the Trojans.
That’s because Greene is certainly no stranger when it comes to dealing with pressure and, just as important, competition. The dual-threat standout was only a sophomore in 2011 when he took over the starting quarterback job at Gardena (Calif.) Serra -- a Southern California powerhouse that under head coach Scott Altenberg has developed a reputation as somewhat of a college football factory as of late, churning out big names such as Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, among others.

Guiding the Cavaliers to a 35-6 record and a 2012 CIF state title during his time there, Greene got better and better throughout his career, due in part to the fact that with so much talent around him, he knew he could never afford to ease up.

“Coach Altenberg preached to us every day about competition,” said Greene, who passed for more than 6,300 yards and rushed for more than 3,000 in his three years at the helm of the Cavaliers offense. “Every time we broke we said, ‘Competition,’ so competition was always in our mind -- in games, in practice, every day. That’s all we knew.”

That battle cry and that experience, has served Greene well so far at USC.

Electing to sign with the Trojans late in the recruiting process after having previously given Chris Petersen-led staffs at Boise State and Washington his verbal commitment, the 6-foot-3 lefty looked completely at home out on Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field during the Trojans’ recently completed spring practice schedule. This despite having been thrown into a fresh system with new coaches, not to mention a high-profile quarterback battle. And while he was never able to jump ahead of Max Browne or Cody Kessler -- the eventual winner -- in that derby, Greene certainly succeeded in making a positive impression on those around him, both for the strong arm he showcased and for the way he progressed.

“I’m really, really pleased with him,” USC offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Clay Helton said. “I am very excited by how fast he’s picked up the concepts, how hard he is working. ... You know, you can see the liveness of his arm. He has very, very good tools and will be a very promising quarterback here for the future.”

Of course, Greene did have his anxious moments early on.

“When I first started I was a little bit nervous, but Coach Helton, coach Tee [Martin] and coach [Steve Sarkisian] guided me a lot,” Greene said. “With the guidance from them, it became easier. It’s a lot faster than the high school level. I feel that I’m getting there, I’m catching up to the speed, but I just have to keep progressing.”

Helton has had the biggest impact on Greene so far. The two worked tirelessly throughout the spring to perfect his throwing motion and footwork, and the results were noticeable.

“He’s been a tremendous help,” Greene said. “I’m more accurate than I was when I first started -- there are less balls being thrown all over the place. He’s been helping me out a lot. Every throw he’s right behind me telling me what I need to fix.”

Physically, Greene has made strides as well. Jumping right into USC strength and conditioning coach Ivan Lewis’ workouts when he first arrived, Greene has already bulked up substantially over the course of the last four months.

“Right now I weigh 212, so that’s been surprising. I came in weighing 196,” Greene said. “I gained a lot of weight. And Coach Ivan, he’s a great coach. He’s been guiding me each day we’re in the weight room.”

And just like when he was at Serra, that old mantra of "Competition" still sits in the back of his head and drives him, including right now in the offseason, as he strives to one day realize his ultimate goal of lining up as the Trojans’ starting quarterback.

“That’s the plan,” Greene said. “I just want to keep competing, keep learning as much as I can and just stay focused.”

Poll: Top spring storyline

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
5:30
PM PT
There hasn’t been a shortage of intriguing storylines this spring in the Pac-12. Then again, there usually aren’t. From quarterback battles to disciplinary issues, the 2014 spring has given us plenty to talk about. But which one stands out as the biggest storyline? That’s today’s Pac-12 blog poll question.

What’s the biggest storyline in the Pac-12 this spring?

Your options:

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What is the biggest storyline in the Pac-12 this spring?

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    43%
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    19%
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    17%
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    7%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,677)

Bralon Addison injury: The Ducks lost one of their top receiving threats when Addison tore his ACL in spring practice. There are options for the Ducks, who are never wanting for offensive talent. But Addison seemed poised to build off an outstanding 2013 after catching 61 balls for 890 yards and seven touchdowns -- not to mention his prowess as a return man. This is the third-straight spring a marquee receiver has gone down (Paul Richardson, 2012; Austin Hill, 2013).

USC quarterback: Cody Kessler is USC’s starting quarterback, for now. New coach Steve Sarkisian announced before the spring game that the incumbent had continued to distance himself from challengers Max Browne and Jalen Greene. It wasn’t a total shock -- given Kessler’s year of experience and the fact that he came on strong in the second half last fall. But USC quarterbacks will always garner national attention.

Quarterback questions marks: While 10 Pac-12 coaches have the luxury of having their QB in place already, two schools are still looking for their starter. Arizona has a host of quarterbacks to choose from. And spring has brought little clarity to the situation. At Washington, Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams split the snaps, but we won’t know much until Cyler Miles returns from his suspension.

ASU’s defense: Every team has to replace a few key players, but the Arizona State Sun Devils essentially have to replace its entire starting defense. With nine starters gone from last season’s defense gone -- including two-time Pac-12 defensive player of the year Will Sutton -- the competition level was upped to see who is going to step in.

Stanford's RBs: Being a starting running back at Stanford means big production. The Cardinal have had a 1,000-yard rusher every year since 2008, so whoever replaces Tyler Gaffney is probably in for a big season. Though coach David Shaw told the Pac-12 blog earlier this month he’d prefer to have a committee approach, a natural No. 1 will likely emerge. Who that is, however, remains a question.
After a break in action, USC returns to Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field on Tuesday to pick up where it left off after a promising first week of spring drills under Steve Sarkisian.

Much was revealed during those initial three workouts, and here are three key things to keep an eye on as the Trojans go through the remaining practice schedule in March and April.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCody Kessler has adjusted well to USC's uptempo offense this spring.
The continued development of the players in the new systems

Week 1 was all about an uptempo pace as the players got their feet wet in new offensive and defensive schemes at a frenetic pace. To their credit, they appeared to adapt to it all in lightning-quick fashion.

And so, the big question now is just how much further can they come over the course of the next four weeks?

On offense, the progression of the passing game should be particularly interesting to watch. Both Cody Kessler and Max Browne performed solidly in Sarkisian’s hurry-up, shotgun-based offense. As they continue to grow at ease in the new system and develop more chemistry with their receivers, there’s reason to believe the aerial attack has the potential to really take off.

On the other side of the ball, Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 multiple-front defense has been a hit so far, due in large part to some outstanding play in the trenches. The front seven shined throughout the first week, even with Leonard Williams standing on the sideline due to injury. With unique size on the interior and hulking contributors like Delvon Simmons, Antwaun Woods, Kenny Bigelow and Claude Pelon combined with exciting athletes on the outside, this unit should get better and better this spring.

In the secondary, even with Josh Shaw out of action, Keith Heyward’s group has been making some impressive plays in coverage -- something they struggled to do under the prior regime. Will that trend continue? We’ll soon find out.

Competition, competition, competition

When Sarkisian took the reins in early December, one thing he stressed was that virtually every position would be up for grabs. He wanted to create an atmosphere of competition. And with one week of practice in the books, it’s safe to say that is precisely what's happened.

A number of tightly contested position battles have taken shape, none garnering more attention than the one at quarterback between Browne, Kessler and early-entrant freshman Jalen Greene. With some added bulk to his frame and an increased level of confidence, Browne really opened eyes with his play in Week 1, but that doesn’t mean Kessler backed down an inch. A vocal leader of the team, Kessler did a great job of directing the offense down the field with frequent success. He had the poise and command you’d expect from a veteran with 14 starts under his belt. Greene has displayed flashes at times, although he’s taken noticeably fewer snaps than his counterparts, both of whom appear to have a sizeable lead on him in this race.

On defense, the competitions for the two spots on the edge of the line have been the highlight so far. Quinton Powell and Jabari Ruffin are duking it out at SAM linebacker, with Scott Starr and J.R. Tavai battling at rush end. In Week 1, it was Powell and Starr running exclusively with the No. 1 unit, but, really, all four contenders have stood out at times.

Some previously hidden players have also begun to emerge as they’ve received somewhat of a golden opportunity to show what they can do in the new schemes. Powell and Starr are two such examples, as are tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, guard Khaliel Rodgers, tackle Nathan Guertler, cornerback Chris Hawkins and defensive end Simmons.

How physical will Sarkisian allow it to get?

With a new staff in place and a depleted roster (NCAA sanctions) made even more so because of a number of injuries, Sarkisian indicated when he took over at USC that he might not push the envelope too much when it came to live hitting this spring. That was certainly the case in the first week. But as the team progresses through the schedule this month and next, will we see the pads popping with greater frequency at any point?

There are certainly some added benefits that could come with more physical workouts, but there are drawbacks as well. Finding the perfect combination isn’t as easy as it might sound. Just ask Lane Kiffin.

Stay away from full-contact drills completely and you risk fielding a defense that could get pushed around and has tackling issues. That was the case in 2012.

But USC still lacks depth, and if you allow more hitting, you also run the risk of more players getting injured. That happened in 2013.

It’s a decision that could ultimately play a major role in shaping the identity of the team down the line, so it will be interesting to see which way Sarkisian goes here.

Offense shines on Day 2

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13
9:56
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After the defense stood out in the team’s first practice session under Steve Sarkisian on Tuesday, the new USC head coach said the offense stole the show on Day 2 of the Trojans’ spring practice.

“I thought the offense created some explosive plays in the second practice which weren’t there in the first practice,” Sarkisian said. “And so, like I’m used to on this practice field, one side of the ball can get the better of the other on one day, and then you come back the next practice and the other side can get the better of them. I thought the defense had a great Tuesday [and] I thought the offense came out and created some explosive plays today. It was kind of their turn.”

In particular, it was the play of quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Max Browne -- who are entrenched in a position battle -- that really caught the eye of Sarkisian. Directing the team’s brand new uptempo, shotgun-based offense, both signal callers split the bulk of snaps during the 7-on-7 and team periods, with each contender completing deep passes downfield on a number of occasions.

“I thought they played well today,” Sarkisian said. “I think that they’re starting to recognize the speed coming out of Tuesday’s practice of how fast things go, and how quickly they have to recognize fronts and coverages, and making those quick decisions -- similar to how a point guard would have to make quick decisions on a basketball court. And I thought both Cody and Max were much better at that today.”

And even though the third member of the quarterback competition, early entry freshman Jalen Greene, didn’t see as much action as his counterparts, he came up with a big play of his own when he completed a 35-yard touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone to Darreus Rogers, and it certainly didn’t go unnoticed by Sarkisian.

“[He took] a little less reps, but to Jalen’s credit he goes in and throws a touchdown pass,” Sarkisian said. “He’ll get plenty of reps. We’ve got 13 more [practices] to go, so he’ll get his time. We just felt like it was important to get Cody and Max some extended reps in today’s practice.”

Cope-Fitzpatrick makes a big impression

No player benefitted more from the performance of the quarterbacks than junior tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. With Randall Telfer sidelined due to injury, the former Rocklin (Calif.) Whitney standout is currently the only active scholarship tight end available for the Trojans. To his credit, he’s taken advantage of the increased opportunity this spring, particularly on Thursday.

Showcasing soft hands, Cope-Fitzpatrick hauled in a number of passes all over the field, and he was especially in sync with Kessler. With Sarkisian having shown at Washington that he isn’t afraid to use the tight end as a major weapon in his offense, he was encouraged by what he saw from Cope-Fitzpatrick on Thursday.

“In this system we love to utilize the tight end, and a lot of time multiple tight ends,” Sarkisian said. “I think Jalen has really focused himself on trying to come out and have a good spring. I thought he was really attentive and locked in on Tuesday, and then he got opportunities today to make plays down the field, and he made them. I think that’s what he’s capable of. He’s an athletic guy, he’s got tremendous ball skills and I think he’s seen a real opportunity to step up and make plays and he’s doing it.”

Notes and quotes

• Following practice defensive back Josh Shaw, who is still sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot and is wearing a boot, said that he will line up at cornerback in 2014.

J.R. Tavai saw extensive time with the first-team defense at defensive end on Thursday, where Kenny Bigelow lined up for the majority of Tuesday’s practice. Tavai had run primarily with the second unit on the outside at rush end on Tuesday.

• Among those in attendance were Class of 2014 signees Viane Talamaivao, Damien Mama, Chris Brown and Ajene Harris, Class of 2015 defensive lineman Rasheem Green and USC and NFL greats Keyshawn Johnson and Ronnie Lott.

• The next practice is on Saturday, but the team will be in shorts, shoulder pads and helmets, and it will not be in a scrimmage setting as some might have assumed. In fact, Sarkisian said that he isn’t sure that the team will hold any scrimmages in the traditional sense this spring.

“I don’t know if we’re ever going to come out and have a two-hour scrimmage. I don’t know if we benefit from that,” he said. “But there will be portions of our practice that will be live, that will be scrimmage oriented, and I think that will allow us to tackle, it will allow us to cut block, it will allow us to learn from those things, but not be so overly fatigued to where guys can start getting injured.”


When Steve Sarkisian left USC to become the head coach at Washington in 2008, he did so facing an uphill climb. Without any head-coaching experience and at an unfamiliar place, he was tasked with turning around a once-proud program that had gone 0-12 the season before.

Moderate improvement was the realistic goal and an accepted expectation -- at least early in his tenure. Five years and four bowl games later, the Huskies are in a better place and Sarkisian is back home, ready to do it all over again at USC.

This time, however, there won't be mixed opinions about how a seven- or eight-win season should be viewed. At USC, that's failure, and Sarkisian knows it.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian, USC Trojans
AP Photo/Jae C. HongNew USC coach Steve Sarkisian isn't in a rush to name a starting quarterback.
“We will not shy away from the expectations that USC football embodies, we will embrace them," he said. "I came here to win championships and so did all of our players.”

The Trojans return eight starters apiece on offense and defense from a team that went 10-4 and finished ranked No. 19, but they'll be without five players who left early for the NFL. Those departures will keep USC below 70 scholarship players as it enters the last of a three-year period in which the NCAA capped its scholarship total at 75.

“We’re not worried about who we don’t have on the roster or what our numbers are,” said Sarkisian. “What we do know is we have a roster of very talented football players who are hungry to do well.”

Having taken over a new program once before, Sarkisian is undoubtedly more prepared to begin his reign at Troy.

"You just have a better understanding of what's coming your way," he said. "There's so much going on. Turning on that fire hose and spraying water ... you can get overwhelmed.

"Whatever we're doing, we'll focus on doing that well and then it'll be on to the next thing. You can't try to do it all at once. Focus is much better the second time around; we feel good where we're at."

The Trojans begin spring practice Tuesday with Sarkisian set to place a heavy emphasis on walkthroughs and meetings. That's partially because the new staff needs to implement its schemes, but also because nearly 20 players will be either sidelined or limited throughout the spring due to injury.

With so many players unable to practice, Sarkisian admitted the staff won't get a full gauge of the roster. Regardless, he and his staff are set to begin evaluating on Day 1.

"We're going in with an open mind and a clear slate for every player," he said. "I don't want to go out there with preconceived notions ... rather them show me who they are. That's the mindset."

The biggest question facing the Trojans before their opener against Fresno State on Aug. 30 is at quarterback, where returning starter Cody Kessler will see competition from highly touted redshirt freshman Max Browne and early enrollee Jalen Greene. Sarkisian said the timetable for when a starter is named will depend on what plays out on the field.

"There's no deadline," he said. "When you make a deadline you tend to wait. We don't want to do that. When it feels right, we'll [name the starter]. If it's one, two, three days or into fall ... I don't think it'll be something that'll linger."

The Trojans will have three practices this week, all of which are open to the public. USC will then take a week off for spring break and practice three times a week until the spring game on April 19 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The Trojans added five new 2014 recruits at the spring semester in defensive linemen Claudeson Pelon and Don Hill, quarterback Jalen Greene and offensive linemen Toa Lobendahn and Jordan Austin. What should fans expect out of these five newcomers this spring? Here are some thoughts on their expectations as practice begins later this week.

Pelon: He is the most likely of the early enrollees to make an immediate impact as he competes for the interior spot vacated by George Uko. Pelon has massive size with a 6-foot-5, 285-pound frame along with two years of playing experience at the junior college level. He will face a lot of competition from players like Antwaun Woods, Delvon Simmons, Kenny Bigelow and Greg Townsend Jr. (along with the possibility of J.R. Tavai) but Pelon will be given every opportunity in spring to show that he can be part of the interior rotation.

Hill: Don’t expect much from Hill this spring as he rehabs from an Achilles' heel injury suffered last year. Hill was committed to Steve Sarkisian and Washington before flipping to USC, so these coaches have long thought that Hill could fit in their plans. He’s projected as a DE who could play a stand-up OLB role.

Greene: There were a few raised eyebrows when Sarkisian offered a scholarship to Greene, who wasn’t previously on the USC radar as a commit to Boise State. Now with the recent announcement that Max Wittek would be leaving the program, Greene suddenly has the opportunity to get a lot of reps in his first spring with the Trojans. The main competition at the position will be between incumbent Cody Kessler and the talented Max Browne, but Greene will benefit from the added work that comes when only three scholarship quarterbacks are on the roster.

Lobendahn: While Pelon might be the mostly likely of the early entries to see immediate playing time, don’t rule Lobendahn out of that mix because the Trojans need a center and there are no clear-cut favorites for the role. Khaliel Rodgers enters spring as a candidate with one year of experience as a guard but Lobendahn figures to be given a shot to compete for the spot. Lobendahn is the son of a coach who was also a lineman so the genes and fundamentals are there. He has a versatile and aggressive playing style that reminds us of former USC lineman Lenny Vandermade, who is back with the program this spring as part of the staff.

Austin: There won’t be many immediate expectations for Austin this spring. He will be added in as depth with a chance to begin his development process a semester early, which is always a bonus for an incoming lineman.

USC spring spotlight: The QB race

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
9:00
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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.

[+] EnlargeMax Browne
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsMax Browne was third in last year's quarterback competition, but with a year under his belt he'll take his best shot at incumbent starter Cody Kessler.
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.

Roundtable: USC spring storylines

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
2:15
PM PT
WeAreSC staffers give opinions on topics related to Trojans football:

What storyline will you be most interested to follow in spring ball?

[+] EnlargeWashington's Justin Wilcox
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonIt should be interesting to see how the USC defense evolves this spring with Justin Wilcox calling the shots.
Garry Paskwietz: I’ll be watching to see how the defense begins to take shape under new coordinator Justin Wilcox. One of the things that worked so well for the Trojans last season was the way the USC defensive personnel fit so smoothly within the 5-2 scheme utilized by former coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Wilcox says he wants to get a look at the USC players on the field to see how their skills fit before he commits to a particular scheme, so it could be a very fluid situation in spring. How does the rotation look along the line, especially with the need to replace George Uko? Who steps up to fill the edge-rush spots at outside linebacker? Will Su’a Cravens be used in much the same way Shaq Thompson was at Washington? These and many other questions will begin to get answered when the Trojans hit the field next month.

Johnny Curren: I’m most interested to see how the new up-tempo offense that USC coach Steve Sarkisian plans to install comes along, and how the current Trojans players adapt to playing in it. Sarkisian has stated before that although fast-paced, it will still essentially be a pro-style, run-first offense, but there are still bound to be several significant differences from USC offenses of the past, and there are plenty of questions heading into the spring that won’t begin to be answered until the team hits the practice field. Will one of the quarterbacks -- Cody Kessler, Max Browne or Jalen Greene -- prove to be particularly adept at directing the new attack? Will the quarterbacks be asked to run more? Will more of an emphasis be placed on throwing to the tight end, as Sarkisian did at Washington, and will Randall Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick thrive in the potentially expanded role? Will we see more wideouts involved? Will the fullback really be utilized? Most importantly, though, will it all result in an offense that is more explosive, and in the end, more productive? In less than a month we’ll start to find out.

Greg Katz: The O-line gets top billing here, especially the center position, which is key with the early departure of All-Pac-12 center Marcus Martin to the NFL draft. The candidates or position changes as it pertains to center could be fascinating because it could lead to a domino effect. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers, who should be a prime candidate for either center or guard. Another sidebar to the offensive line, of course, is the arrival of new coach Tim Drevno from the San Francisco 49ers. Watching his readjustment to college players and what’s available to him should be worth watching at spring practice.

As for an overall view, with a new system and terminology, the logical advantage for returners such as left tackle Chad Wheeler and right tackle Max Tuerk is starting experience. Tuerk, however, is one to keep an eye on to see if he stays at right tackle and is not moved to center. Rehabilitation for guards Jordan Simmons and Aundrey Walker make spring progress tough, but it should make for interesting competition to see how the available bodies fit into Sark’s “puzzle pieces.” What you see in the spring might not be the offensive line you see in the first game against Fresno State.

Biggest flips: Pac-12 

February, 3, 2014
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Many of the biggest flips relating to Pac-12 teams came fairly early in the process, which means there might not be much chaos on signing day when it comes to recruits flipping commitments. However, as with every year, flips will help and hurt a number of conference programs come Wednesday, and we take a look at the five biggest in the Pac-12 during this recruiting cycle.


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With the news that the Trojans received a verbal commitment over the weekend from one of the top quarterbacks in the Class of 2015, there was automatically a lot of message board speculation about the state of the USC depth chart at the position in future years.

There is no doubt that the newest future Trojan -- Ricky Town from Ventura (Calif.) St. Bonaventure -- will one day play into the mix for the signal-caller job, as will Max Browne and Jalen Greene. For the more immediate future, incumbent starter Cody Kessler heads up the position while veteran Max Wittek, with two starts under his belt, has to be considered as well.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCody Kessler has the experience, but new USC coach Steve Sarkisian said all jobs are up for grabs in the spring, including the QB.
What was interesting about some of the discussions were the thoughts on Kessler being in competition for his job now, or even in a potential senior season. Even though Kessler put up solid numbers in his sophomore season while guiding the Trojans through a season full of adversity, there were still plenty of USC fans who made it clear of their desire for Browne to get a shot at the job sooner rather than later.

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USC gets relief with Town commitment 

January, 25, 2014
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For USC head coach Steve Sarkisian, this weekend was supposed to be about sealing the deal with some top targets who were officially visiting campus, but it quickly transformed into so much more.

Most of the focus centered on a group of highly touted prospects from the 2014 class, including John Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Poly) and Damien Mama (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco), as the Trojans hosted a large group of recruits with less than two weeks remaining until national signing day. Yet, the buzz shifted toward the future as Sarkisian reached into the 2015 class to make perhaps his biggest splash since arriving from Washington, securing a verbal commitment from Ricky Town (Ventura, Calif./St. Bonaventure), the No. 2-rated pocket passer who decommitted from Alabama earlier in the day.

Consider it a major coup for USC, which made Town its top priority at quarterback and managed to flip him in a short period of time.


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The Trojans currently have 15 commitments for 19 spots available in the Class of 2014 and early spring enrollments.

Here is how the spots fill out for the commitments that have been made so far:

QB (1) Jalen Greene
RB (0)
WR (1) Rahshead Johnson
TE (1) Bryce Dixon
OL (4) Viane Talamaivao, Toa Lobendahn, Chris Brown, Jordan Austin
DL (3) Malik Dorton, Don Hill, Claudeson Pelon
LB (2) Olajuwon Tucker, Uchenna Nwosu
DB (3) Jonathan Lockett, Ajene Harris, John Plattenburg

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LOS ANGELES -- Steve Sarkisian hasn’t been back at USC long -- just over six weeks to be exact -- but as he spoke to a gathering of reporters inside the John McKay Center on Tuesday afternoon, it became apparent that the new head coach certainly isn’t tempering his optimism.

“We’ve got a plenty talented roster to go out and compete for a championship,” Sarkisian said, “and that’s what I said [on] Day 1, and I really have not wavered on that.”


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