USC Trojans: Max Browne

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
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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.

Roundtable: Future award winners

June, 23, 2014
Jun 23
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With many postseason awards coming out with their watch lists, here are our thoughts on which members of the USC football team are most likely to win the following awards at some point in their career.

Heisman Trophy

Garry Paskwietz: Javorius "Buck" Allen. Every so often there is an aura around a player when he is “the man,” and Allen has that right now with the Trojans. The players knew what he could do before he got his chance, and they know how special he was once he finally got on the field. He has bulked up in preparation of carrying a bigger load, and he has the combination of quickness as a runner and good pass-catching ability to put up huge numbers.

[+] EnlargeUSC
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesJavorius "Buck" Allen had four 100-yard rushing efforts in USC's final six games in 2013.
Johnny Curren: Allen. After breaking out over the second half of the 2013 season, Allen looks to be in even better physical shape this summer. And as everyone saw last year with Bishop Sankey at Washington, Sarkisian’s offense definitely provides the opportunity for a tailback to put up big numbers.

Greg Katz: Allen. If Sark gets the same type of production out of Allen that he did with Sankey at Washington and the Trojans do well, the Florida native has a chance at the big one.

Davey O'Brien Award

GP: Max Browne. With all due respect to Cody Kessler, who I believe is the right quarterback for the Trojans right now, I think it is Browne who has the best chance to eventually achieve this kind of national honor. Max has very good throwing skills when it comes to touch and accuracy, and he is only building on those while he is waiting his turn.

JC: Kessler. After showing promise last year during a tumultuous season, Kessler has the potential to thrive in 2014 while directing an up-tempo offense that figures to really rack up yardage while also putting up more points.

GK: Browne. Kessler will have a fine career, but when Browne finally steps in with knowledge of the new offense, watch out.

Doak Walker Award

GP: Allen. He has the total package to be in the mix.

JC: Allen. Again, with what he’s show as of late, Allen just might find himself in the running for this award, either in 2014 or 2015.

GK: Allen. If “Buck” continues to improve dramatically and the Trojans’ offensive line can improve each game, Allen could become a national household name.

Biletnikoff Award

GP: Nelson Agholor: One of the key traits that Agholor inherited from Robert Woods and Marqise Lee was preparation, and his work ethic set the tone for the Trojans in spring ball. When you combine that with his game-breaking ability, this award is certainly within his reach.

JC: Agholor. After waiting his turn behind both Woods and Lee, Agholor is the featured wideout at USC now, and it’s a role that he’s more than ready to take on. Having led the team with 918 receiving yards in 2013, he already has proven himself on the field, and now with more passes coming his way, he could really explode in 2014.

GK: Agholor. He can be just as explosive as Lee, in his own way. It’s a matter of consistency and his quarterback.

Mackey Award

GP: Bryce Dixon. He comes to USC with the ability to be a unique athlete at the tight spot. He reminds me a little of former Trojan Mackey Award winner Fred Davis. Maybe not as powerful as Davis but a similar kind of pass-catching weapon.

JC: Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. Cope-Fitzpatrick had an outstanding spring, catching virtually everything thrown in his direction. Whether it’s this year or next, he just might have the ability to light up the stat sheet in an offense that allowed Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who won this award in 2013, to really flourish at Washington.

GK: Dixon. This kid has the potential to be someone special at tight end. If he can block as well as he can catch and run, he could leave Troy as one of the great ones.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Williams
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsDefensive end Leonard Williams posted 73 tackles and six sacks last season.
Outland Trophy

GP: Leonard Williams. I am starting to look at Williams the way I looked at Shaun Cody in the middle of the USC D-line. Just a special talent who raised the level of play around him and was a great teammate while doing it. I wouldn’t put any limits on what he can accomplish next year.

JC: Williams. Predicted by many to be a top-10 pick in next year’s NFL draft, there’s little doubt that Williams is one of the top linemen in all of college football. It will be interesting to see just how much further he can take his game in the coming months, and if he continues to make strides, this is an award that is definitely within reach.

GK: Williams. The stars are all aligned for Williams to achieve a lineman’s highest honor. Only one Trojan has done it before (OL Ron Yary, 1967) and if Leonard takes this award he’ll always be remembered as one of the legendary Trojans defensive linemen.

Lombardi Award

GP: Viane Talamaivao. You don’t find too many offensive linemen with this combination of size, strength and athleticism. Viane has taken reps at center and both guards spots so far in summer workouts and has looked comfortable in each setting so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some early contributions this year.

JC: Williams. Again, if it all comes together for Williams on the field in 2014, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see honor after honor come his way.

GK: Max Tuerk. The combination of brains, brawn and nasty to go along with his experience puts Max in a position to be only the second Trojan to win the award. If Tuerk can produce like former Trojans Lombardi winner OG Brad Budde (1979), he stands a shot.

Butkus Award

GP: Hayes Pullard. As a productive three-year starter, Pullard is on the verge of putting together one of the more impressive statistical careers we’ve ever seen from a USC linebacker -- and that is saying something. As the unquestioned leader of a group that could be very good this year, he has a chance to get the kind of spotlight needed for the award.

JC: Pullard. Having led the Trojans in tackles in two of the past three seasons, Pullard has already established himself as one of the conference’s top linebackers.

GK: Pullard. There is something about Pullard from one season to another that seems to cry out for recognition. Hayes is a preseason All-American and should the Trojans defense live up to expectations, Pullard will be having a whale of a season.

Thorpe Award

GP: Su'a Cravens. I’m going to go with Cravens on this one, and the main reason I pick him ahead of Leon McQuay III or Adoree’ Jackson (aside from his overwhelming physical skills) is primarily because I think Su’a has a head start and would be the first of the three to win. All three are capable, but I can see Cravens bursting on the national scene this year and setting the stage for a strong run at the award in 2015.

JC: Jackson. I know, I know… way too early to be talking about big-time honors for a player who has yet to take a snap in college. But from what I saw of him on the high school level, as well as in the early workouts at USC this summer, Jackson is a uniquely talented athlete who has the potential to do some special things at USC.

GK: Cravens. The second coming of Ronnie Lott/Troy Polamalu? It would be hard to say that Cravens didn’t live up to all the hype in his freshman season. Yes, he got injured and that slowed his progress, but he showed enough stuff to warrant great expectations. If he did what he did as a true freshman, what’s he going to look like as a junior?
For Max Browne, patience must be considered a virtue right now.

Like so many other highly recruited quarterbacks in recent years, Browne came to USC with visions of early playing time and picking up right where he left off after a successful high school career.

As Matt Leinart, John David Booty, Mark Sanchez and even Cody Kessler can tell him, however, sometimes there is a process that takes place that delays that transition, and the process is completely normal.

[+] EnlargeMax Browne
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsMax Browne will likely begin the 2014 season as the No. 2 quarterback behind Cody Kessler.
Sure, every now and then there is a Carson Palmer or a Matt Barkley, guys who come in and end up as the starting quarterback during their first year on campus, but for the most part at a school like USC, there are going to be other established options on the roster that will limit the opportunities for a newcomer.

Leinart had to wait for two years behind Palmer; Booty sat for three years behind Leinart. Sanchez was also a reserve for three years before getting his shot.

Even Palmer was the backup to Mike Van Raaphorst for the first eight games of his freshman season. Barkley enrolled early for spring in 2009, but Aaron Corp won the job at the end of spring ball. Corp got hurt in fall camp, which opened the door for Barkley to be named the starter by Pete Carroll.

The point of this is to remind Browne that while he didn’t get the starting QB job in spring, there is plenty of time left in his USC career to realize the potential that everyone seems to think he has.

There might have been talk from a new coach about competition and, in fairness to Steve Sarkisian, that’s what he had to say. But the reality was that the Trojans had a solid incumbent in Kessler and it was going to be a tough road for Browne to unseat him in one spring ball session.

Browne came out this spring looking physically bulked up and by all accounts he made the type of progress you would want to see from a player in his first full offseason at the college level. But even though Browne played well, Kessler played better, and Sarkisian made the correct decision in confirming that Kessler would be the starter heading into fall camp.

There were some USC fans, and even some in the national media, who had been expecting the more highly-touted Browne to take over, so naturally there were questions asking if Browne had somehow been overrated or if this decision was somehow a negative comment on his performance.

The answer to those questions is no. Browne is likely going to be a very good college quarterback someday. There are too many positive attributes in his skill set both on and off the field to think otherwise. It’s just that he went up against a quarterback who has two more years of experience at USC, including a solid one as a starter, and that can mean a lot sometimes.

The best thing for Browne right now is to simply stay the course. Keep bulking up in the weight room. Keep making progress this summer in the throwing sessions. Coaches and teammates see the work he puts in, and he has their respect. Chances are he will get some opportunities this fall in a reserve role and he can start to build from that. It will take some patience for Browne as he waits for his time, but recent history of other USC quarterbacks who have waited shows that it will be worth it when it happens.

Poll: Top spring storyline

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
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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:

SportsNation

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

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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.

Spring games roundup

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
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Here's a quick look at some of the highlights of the four spring games this past weekend.

Arizona State

Sophomore linebacker Viliami Moeakiola stopped running back Jarek Hilgers on fourth-and-short on the final play as the Maroon team held off the Gold squad 29-23 in front of 8,456 fans at Sun Devil Stadium.

Quarterback Taylor Kelly completed 7 of 22 passes with a touchdown for the Maroon team. Gold quarterback Mike Bercovici went 11-of-24 with three touchdowns and an interception.

“I like the format that we did because it created more competition,” said ASU coach Todd Graham. “The gold team was really down, but came back and fought back, got a chance to win. Maroon held on with a fourth down, goal-line stand. D.J. [Foster] was frustrated with me—he really wanted to play more. I thought he did some good things when he was in there. Loved the big shot to Jaelen [Strong] from Taylor Kelly. I thought Kelly really looked good today. He really managed the offense and was very much in command of things. Both offensive lines divided up evenly on each team — all those guys did some good things."

The complete stats are available here.

USC

In front of 17,500 fans at the L.A. Coliseum, kicker Andre Heidari made four field goals. But the offense failed to get into the end zone and the defense came out on top 16-15.

Newly re-anointed starting quarterback Cody Kessler completed 5 of 10 passes for 86 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. Max Browne went 6-of-17 for 76 yards with no scores or picks and Jalen Greene was 4-of-11 for 61 yards – also without a touchdown nor an interception. Notes Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times:
Before getting too alarmed, it is worth noting that dating to the Pete Carroll era, USC's spring finale has not served as a reliable indicator of fall performance.

Rather, it's annually an exercise in avoiding major injury while looking ahead to summer.

So a true evaluation of [Steve] Sarkisian's new fast-paced, no-huddle scheme cannot begin until USC plays its Aug. 30 opener against Fresno State at the Coliseum.

Walk-on tailback James Toland IV was the top rusher with 36 yards on eight carries and tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick caught three passes for 56 yards. Scott Starr had a game-high six tackles, with three for a loss.

"We had a couple big pass plays, but the defense played really well and tackled well,” Sarkisian said. "And we got out of the game with no serious injuries."

Utah

Despite 103 rushing yards and two touchdowns from transfer Devontae Booker, the Red team took down the White squad 28-27 in front of 12,056 fans at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Quarterback Travis Wilson, still shackled by noncontact restrictions, completed 7 of 12 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown in five drives.

Dominique Hatfield (four catches, 93 yards) and Westlee Tonga hauled in touchdown receptions for the White team. Troy McCormick rushed eight times for 34 yards with a touchdown to lead the Red squad.

"We've been high on Devontae Booker ever since he got here," head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "He didn't get here more than a week or two before the start of spring ball, so he was fighting his lack of conditioning all spring. But as soon as he gets himself in great shape, I think he'll be a very good running back in this conference. All of the running backs ran hard today. A strong running game is where everything begins, even if you are a spread team."

Sal Velasquez and Filipo Mokofisi each picked off Brandon Cox, who threw the only interceptions of the game. Adam Schulz was 9-of-13 for 110 yards with a touchdown and Conner Manning was 9-of-12 for 86 yards and a score.

The complete stats are available here.

Washington

Though Washington didn’t keep official stats for its drizzly spring game, quarterback Jeff Lindquist threw four touchdowns in red zone and situational drills and, per Adam Jude of the Seattle Times, was unofficially 11-of-15 for 134 yards.

Troy Williams, who has been splitting reps all spring with Lindquist while the team awaits the status of Cyler Miles, was 11-of-18 for 38 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.

Deontae Cooper, Lavon Coleman and Ralph Kinne were the only backs who participated. Cooper carried nine times for 68 yards, Colmean rushed 18 times for 99 yards and a touchdown and Kinne had seven carries for 38 yards.

Head coach Chris Petersen told Gohuskies.com that picking a quarterback to replace Keith Price could go all the way up until the season opener – if not longer.

“Absolutely, that’s possible. Yeah, we could go to Game 9, if it hasn’t been decided,” Petersen said. “We’ll take this one day at a time. One day, one game. I know it sounds cliché, but it really will be. … I mean, it’s all nice to have a starting quarterback, but that guy graduated in December. And so, we are at square one. Until one guy establishes himself, we don’t have a guy.”
USC coach Steve Sarkisian named Cody Kessler his starting quarterback this week, though he noted that Kessler will have to continue to defend the position against competition from redshirt freshman Max Browne during fall camp.

It wasn't a big surprise. After all, Kessler was the 2013 starter and acquitted himself fairly well, particularly over the second half of the season with Clay Helton calling plays instead of deposed coach Lane Kiffin.

Still, Sarkisian is following in the philosophical footsteps of his mentor, Pete Carroll, who believed it was best to name a starting quarterback by the end of spring practices.

As we've noted a few times, Carroll called this "anointing." He believed that by anointing a starting quarterback in the spring, that allowed the QB to carry authority into the offseason. Teammates would recognize the crown on his head, as they might not if two or more candidates officially remained on even footing.

The anointing ended intrigue. It ended media speculation players would read. It ended an offseason rivalry that might split players into bailiwicks, based on personal preferences both on and off the field.

So Sarkisian has his way of doing it.

Then there's most other coaches. They prefer keeping their cards close to their chests. They like the intrigue. They like the prolonged competition. They want to measure offseason work and mental toughness. Who gets better from April to August? Who seems to take control of the locker room or huddle on his own, without the anointing from a coach?

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Is it better to announce a starting quarterback after spring practices or wait until the end of fall camp?

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So we have the two true QB competitions in the Pac-12 this spring: Arizona and Washington, where neither Rich Rodriguez nor Chris Petersen is likely to give us a firm idea of their starter until perhaps as late as the week before the season opener.

Of course, there's not 100 percent purity of approach here. If Kessler hadn't outplayed Browne, Sarkisian almost certainly wouldn't have made an announcement. And if Rodriguez or Petersen were sitting on an Andrew Luck-type talent right now, they probably would go ahead and pull the trigger and announce him as the No. 1 guy.

Fact is, the present consensus is neither Arizona nor Washington has any clear pecking order. The Wildcats have four guys who didn't separate themselves this spring, and the Huskies still have to see where the suspended Cyler Miles, the 2013 backup, fits into their plans.

Yet there is a clear philosophical difference here.

So what do you think? Is it better to anoint a starting QB after spring practices in order to give him a leadership role over the summer, or is it better to wait as long as possible to foster uncertainty and, therefore, continued competition?

It wasn’t a dramatic decision accompanied by great fanfare, but it was still notable that USC coach Steve Sarkisian named Cody Kessler the Trojans' starting quarterback after Tuesday’s practice.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesCody Kessler, who threw for 2,968 yards and 20 TDs last season, will once again be running the USC offense after being named the starter on Tuesday.
Sarkisian had said last week that he was getting close to a decision and would likely make the announcement before the end of spring practice. There had been hints throughout the spring that Kessler would be keeping the job he held for the 2013 season, including when Sarkisian said that Kessler was improving at a faster pace than the top challenger, redshirt freshman Max Browne.

Considering that Kessler was the incumbent starter, if he was improving at a more rapid rate than Browne it was a fairly clear sign that Kessler was in the lead position to be named the starter. Still, until the actual word came down from Sarkisian there was always going to be a slight bit of uncertainty.

It wasn’t a huge surprise that Sarkisian made the announcement at this time. Even though the Trojans coach was clear to say that the players will still compete throughout the summer and into fall camp, Sarkisian has long stated a preference to have his starting quarterback in place by the end of spring, in large part to help that player transition into the leadership role in summer workouts.

For Kessler, being named the starter now is a contrast to what happened last year when Lane Kiffin didn’t name a starter until the third game of the season. Both Kessler and Max Wittek later admitted that was difficult for both quarterbacks.

One of the variables in the competition this spring was that the quarterbacks were learning a new up-tempo system that Sarkisian was installing, one that could run up to 120 plays each day in practice. Both players had worked out of the shotgun in similar systems in high school so there was some familiarity, but Sarkisian wanted to see them on the field with no preconceived expectations.

Kessler, who was told of the decision early Tuesday by offensive coordinator Clay Helton, went out and had one of his best practices of the spring later in the day. Sarkisian mentioned several reasons he chose Kessler, ranging from decision-making to his presence in the locker room to his strong arm.

It was the natural choice to make as Kessler is simply more advanced than Browne is at this point, although it's clear that Browne has a bright future. For now, though, Browne will have to continue to wait his turn as Kessler will hold on to his job as the starting quarterback of the Trojans.
Max Browne likely knows what's going on.

You can see it in his eyes. You can read it in his body language. As much as he wants it to be different, he understands.


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USC coach Steve Sarkisian said he could pick a starting quarterback before the Trojans end spring practice drills on April 19.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCody Kessler finished with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions last fall.
At the beginning of spring practice, Sarkisian had declared open competitions for all positions, and that included the quarterback spot where incumbent starter Cody Kessler would face a challenge from redshirt freshman Max Browne.

At the time, Sarkisian said he was unsure if he would name a starter at the end of spring or wait until fall camp, but it appears as if the decision will come sooner rather than later.

“Honestly, yes,” Sarkisian said when asked if he was closer to naming a starter. “I would suspect we’ll name one before the end of spring. As I’ve said before, when I have a pretty good feeling for it I’m going to let it sit for a little bit, maybe watch for a bit and view it that way, see what that feels like. I feel like that’s a good way to go about it.”

Kessler -- a redshirt junior -- is expected to retain his starting spot after leading the Trojans to a 10-4 record last fall while completing 236 of 361 passes for 2,968 yards with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He was also named MVP of the Las Vegas Bowl, where the Trojans defeated Fresno State.

Sarkisian praised Kessler earlier this spring for his quick release, arm strength and accuracy.

"Cody has gotten better every day. Max is improving as well, but maybe not at the rapid pace that Cody has been so far," Sarkisian said after a recent Coliseum scrimmage.

Browne is a former No. 1-ranked quarterback recruit who has tremendous touch on the deep ball and is considered to have a bright future in the program.
LOS ANGELES -- It has to go down as one of the top highlights of the spring so far at USC. During a late 11-on-11 period last Saturday, redshirt freshman quarterback Max Browne stepped back and launched a ball to Nelson Agholor on a post pattern. With the pass just a tad bit off target, the star wideout was able to adjust his position in time to make a beautiful grab on a 70-plus yard scoring play.

It wasn’t exactly perfect, but after all, the end result is what counts most, isn’t it?

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler, Clay Helton
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesClay Helton has been impressed by how well his quarterbacks have adapted to USC's new offense.
Not according to USC offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Clay Helton. Playing a vital role in the installation of Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian’s up-tempo, no-huddle offensive attack this spring, he’s an admitted stickler when it comes to doing things right.

“These quarterbacks will tell you, I’m a perfectionist,” Helton said. “It was an unbelievable catch by Nelson, but where is that ball supposed to be? It’s supposed to be led away from him to lead him away from the corner. So, we point those things out, we correct it, and we’re always trying to make our players better mechanically, fundamentally and assignment-wise.”

It’s that attention to detail that played an integral part in Sarkisian’s decision to retain Helton from the Trojans’ previous staff, but it certainly wasn’t the only reason.

When Helton took over as interim coach following Ed Orgeron’s emotional departure in early December, Sarkisian was, in his words, “blown away,” by the manner in which the 41-year-old Texas native took command of the team and guided it to a victory in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.

“For Clay to stand up in front of that team and take the reins -- I was so impressed by that alone,” Sarkisian said. “And his command in team meetings, and his command on the practice field, I just thought to myself, ‘How can I not have this guy on our staff?’”

For Helton, the decision to remain at USC was made just as easily.

“I absolutely love being a part of the USC Trojans staff, working with Coach Sarkisian,” Helton said. “You know, to be a part of this with a guy that is so brilliant, offensively minded, to be a part of this system again and to help in any role that I can is very satisfying and very rewarding.”

And with Helton in the fold, the Trojans have made what appears to have been a fairly seamless transition to the new offense this spring, all while going at a lightning-quick pace. In fact, Sarkisian noted on Saturday that the team has already run over 1,000 plays through nine practices -- over 2,000 if you include walk-throughs.

And while the new system differs dramatically from the prior one in a number of areas, most notably in terms of its tempo, verbiage and the fact that the quarterback now lines up exclusively out of the shotgun, Helton noted the similarities that have helped ease the changeover.

In particular, the emphasis on establishing a physical rushing attack that was present under former head coach Lane Kiffin, and virtually every other USC head coach before him, still exists. That, coupled with Sarkisian’s desire to make plays downfield has resulted in some solid production so far.

“When Coach Sark was at Washington, they were the 15th-best rush team in the country, but then what you see what I really enjoy is the explosion plays down the field,” Helton said. “He really forces the ball down the field. And I think the two go hand in hand, and I think when you add pace to that, and you’re a very explosive offense, and the quarterback makes good decisions, and we make our plays to 15 (Agholor) or to 84 (Darreus Rogers), those type of explosive guys, you’re going to be successful.”

And speaking of those quarterbacks, the position group that Helton has coached since his arrival at USC in February of 2010, all three members of an open competition that includes returning starter Cody Kessler, Browne, and early-entrant freshman Jalen Greene, have looked at home directing the new offense.

Helton was quick to praise each of them on Saturday, especially the two veterans who have been taking the vast majority of the snaps with the first unit.

“I feel like they’re progressing extremely quickly,” Helton said. “I like where they’re going, but we’re nowhere near being a finished product. The things that we’re working on are speeding up our decision-making, we’re working on being a little bit more anticipatory, getting the ball out quicker [and] not allowing for sacks. I like what they’ve done thus far in nine practices -- their completion ratios are right at 70 percent, both of them, and they’re protecting the football.”

And while 70 percent isn’t quite perfect, in this instance, it is close enough, providing more than enough reason for optimism for Helton. And that goes for the offense as a whole, which Helton is just as eager to see in the fall as everyone else.

“I think this system right now fits our personnel perfectly with what we’re doing,” Helton said. “I can’t wait to see it live and in person.”
LOS ANGELES -- Much ado was made regarding the USC quarterback competition between incumbent junior starter Cody Kessler and redshirt freshman Max Browne, a highly talented and likeable thrower by way of Sammamish, Wash.

As much as the wide-open quarterback competition theory was advanced prior to and during spring ball, it’s been quite obvious that Kessler has taken first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian’s new offensive system and elevated his game. While Browne has shown improvement in his game, he hasn’t been quite able to keep pace with his older and more experienced teammate.

Kessler’s superior spring performance, however, may actually be a blessing in disguise for Sarkisian, who heavily recruited both Kessler and Browne when he was the head coach at Washington.

Besides the actual on-the-field competition between Kessler and Browne, there are four other underlying factors that may also be taken into consideration when Sarkisian names his quarterback, which appears likely by the end of spring ball on April 19.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThere are several factors that could lead USC coach Steve Sarkisian to name Cody Kessler the starting quarterback by the end of spring.
Factor 1: The Trojans open the 2014 season on Aug. 30 by hosting Fresno State, a team the Men of Troy hammered 45-20 back in December at the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. The quarterback of that lopsided demolition was Kessler, who threw for 345 yards and a Las Vegas Bowl-record and career-high four touchdown passes.

Obviously Sarkisian, who was in Las Vegas to watch the game, saw firsthand as Kessler dissected the Fresno State defense, and No. 6 also knows about the Bulldogs' returning personnel. Given the fact that Sarkisian can’t afford his new team to stub its toes against a squad it beat handily, it would be reasonable to think that with Kessler at the helm, chances would increase substantially for a season-opening victory in the Coliseum.

If the Trojans went into the Fresno State opener with an inexperienced Browne, they would still probably stand a good chance of winning. However, with a rookie quarterback starting his first collegiate game and the Bulldogs aware of it, the possibility of a Fresno State upset would notably increase. A Bulldogs upset would set up a worst-case scenario heading into the following week’s Pac-12 opener at Stanford and, no doubt, a quarterback controversy.

Factor 2: Considering the Trojans shocked highly ranked Stanford last season in the Coliseum, 20-17, you don’t have to be ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit or Lee Corso to know that Stanford head coach David Shaw and his team will be looking to hand it to the Trojans in revengeful fashion. And for good measure, they have the returning players to do it.

If the Trojans are to pull off another upset of the host Cardinal -- who return a successful, experienced senior quarterback in Kevin Hogan -- Sarkisian knows he needs an experienced quarterback, and he already has one in Kessler, who passed for 288 yards and one touchdown last season against Stanford.

Again, as talented as Browne is, would it be fair to start an inexperienced freshman quarterback against a team with a tough defense? You can bet Shaw would throw the defensive kitchen sink at a rookie quarterback, something that would be less effective against the experienced Kessler.

Factor 3: Since his hiring and by his own admission, Sarkisian has made no bones about the 2014 Trojans not rebuilding but already being championship caliber. In fact, he recently said that when healthy, his team is more talented than people think. That comment by itself puts increased expectations on the Trojans' new coach.

After the Stanford game, the Trojans travel across the country the following week for a battle at Boston College. Regardless of the Stanford outcome, an experienced quarterback and leader like Kessler would go a long way toward preventing a letdown.

Most would agree that the early schedule could bring immediate praise and early validation for Sarkisian’s new program or unwanted scrutiny. A potential 3-0 start to the season would go far in establishing more answers than regurgitated questions regarding his hire by USC athletic director Pat Haden. Kessler at quarterback would likely position the Trojans for a positive early-season scenario.

Factor 4: Fair or unfair, if things go south early in USC's 2014 schedule, Sarkisian knows that Trojans Nation will point out quickly how the 2013 team beat Stanford and Fresno State with former interim head coaches Ed Orgeron and Clay Helton, respectively, and even Boston College under Lane Kiffin.

In a perfect world, Sarkisian should be objectively judged not on the first three games of 2014 but the season in its entirety. However, it’s inevitable that during the early part of the season, comparisons between Sarkisian and Orgeron will be well documented.

All of which brings us back to the competition between Kessler and Browne and potential scenarios with either quarterback starting the season. Of course, given the way Kessler has performed with just six spring practices remaining, all the conjecture, hypotheticals and analysis could be a moot point.
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?

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesCody Kessler has experience, but could he wind up being the backup QB for the Trojans in 2014?
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.
As his USC team returned from spring break and got back into the practice routine on Tuesday, Steve Sarkisian said he was focused on three key areas of fundamentals to test his players.

“For the most part our conditioning was good [on Tuesday], so it showed a willingness by the players to work during spring break,” Sarkisian said. “Coming out of the break there were some key things that our staff wanted to focus on, the first one being pad level. That was a point of emphasis today, especially late in the practice. The ability of our defense to tackle and attempt to strip the football was another priority, and I thought that was evident. And I thought the quarterbacks made quicker decisions today, which was key coming out of the break.”

Sarkisian continues to emphasize the uptempo aspect of practice, which is combined with multiple periods of walk-through teaching each day that serve as a direct contrast to the frenzied pace of team drills.

“I think the players are getting more comfortable with the uptempo part of things,” Sarkisian said. “Things even got a little feisty at the end, which is good. But I always say that if you have time to yack at the guy across from you, then we aren’t going fast enough.”

There were several defensive players who stood out on Tuesday, including Hayes Pullard with a big hit on Ty Isaac, J.R. Tavai with a sack of Cody Kessler, Charles Burks with a sack of Jalen Greene, Chris Hawkins with a pass breakup against Darreus Rogers, and a solid run stop up the middle from Claudeson Pelon and Anthony Sarao.

“I thought our communication was much better defensively,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve put in a lot for the defense and it’s been a challenge, but I think this is one area where the walk-throughs really help us, not just the guys on the field but the 20 guys who aren’t practicing are getting valuable reps.”

There was continued experimentation along the offensive line as early entry freshman Toa Lobendahn got extended work with the first team at left guard, while the second-unit tackles were switched for a while with Zach Banner moving to the right side and Jordan Austin switching to the left.

“We looked at film of Lobendahn over the break and said, ‘This guy has a real chance,’ ” Sarkisian said. “He’s a real mature kid, he works at it, he studies, he prepares.”

It was also a good day for the passing game, as both Buck Allen and George Farmer stood out. Allen had a pair of long gains on wheel routes from Kessler, and Farmer, who was wearing a yellow jersey to signify no contact, caught a deep ball from Max Browne as well as a nice grab on an intermediate route. Browne also hit Nelson Agholor with a deep pass.

Among those in attendance at practice were signees Damien Mama, Adoree' Jackson and Ajene Harris, as well as verbal commit Ricky Town.
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.

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