USC: Cody Kessler

Second round of spring games on Saturday

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
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Four more spring games are set for Saturday, at which point more than half the Pac-12 will be done with spring ball. You know what that means ... the countdown to fall camp begins!

Here is quick peek at the four games being played this weekend:

Arizona State

Where: Sun Devil Stadium
Kickoff: 11 a.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Arizona (replays throughout the week)

What to watch: When there are steaks on the line, like there will be in this one, you can pretty much guarantee a competitive atmosphere. Instead of an offense vs. defense scoring system, coach Todd Graham broke up the team with a good amount of starters on each side. Starting quarterback Taylor Kelly will lead the maroon team and Mike Bercovici will quarterback the gold team, but the with nine starters departed off last season's defense, it's that side of the ball that will be worth paying attention to. Running back D.J. Foster, who has battled a minor toe sprain throughout the spring, will see limited action despite a clean bill of health. Former Arizona State quarterback Jake Plummer will serve as the analyst on the Pac-12 Arizona broadcast.

USC

Where: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Kickoff: 3 p.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Networks (replays throughout the week)

What to watch: It would have been a lot more fun if coach Steve Sarkisian waited until after the spring game to announce Cody Kessler as the starting quarterback. That way everyone could have overanalyzed the competition based on one meaningless game. But really, who are we kidding? The overanalyzation will go on regardless -- and Sarkisian did leave the door open for Max Browne to work his way back into the mix. It'll be interesting to watch both Kessler and Browne operate the up-tempo offense Sarkisian brought with him from Washington and how a rebuilt offensive line stacks up against a talented defensive front. The guys from WeAreSC kick around much more to pay attention to in this roundtable discussion.

Utah

Where: Rice-Eccles Stadium
Kickoff: 1 p.m. MT
TV: Pac-12 Mountain (replays throughout the week)

What to watch: It'll be good to see quarterback Travis Wilson back under center in a game-like situation again, and even more intriguing because he'll be running new coordinator Dave Christensen's offense against the Utes' base defense. While the setting won't showcase the depths of the playbook, the Cliffs Notes version should provide enough to develop a better understanding of how things will be different next season. The clock will operate as it would in a regular game during a pair of 10-minute quarters in the first half and will use a running clock in the second half after an eight-minute halftime. If you're planning on attending, a food competition and MUSS football game will be held at 11 a.m. MT, with an alumni football game to follow at noon.

Washington

Where: Husky Stadium
Kickoff: 1 p.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Washington (replays throughout the week)

What to watch: Is Shaq Thompson the new Myles Jack? It has been a major storyline in Seattle throughout the spring how the talented linebacker -- and former minor-league baseball player -- is working with the offense. And after watching his some of his high school highlights, it's understandable why new coach Chris Petersen is intrigued by letting him go both ways. Any time there's a brand new coaching staff, the spring game carries a little extra sizzle, but it should also be noted those games aren't necessarily always as telling due to the lack of time the players have spent with the staff. It's a lot of fundamentals, a lot of evaluation, and the scope of what is accomplished is different when compared with schools with established staffs that are familiar with their rosters. Petersen has installed about 50 percent of the playbook. With Cyler Miles still suspended, quarterbacks Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams top the depth chart and will make their cases to replace the departed Keith Price.

Pac-12 poll: To wait or not on naming QB?

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
1:00
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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?

SportsNation

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

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    72%
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    28%

Discuss (Total votes: 612)

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?

Lunch links: Utes' O-line coming together

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

No big surprise Kessler named USC QB

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
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video
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.

3-point stance: Pac-12 adjustments

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
5:30
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1. When USC finished practice Tuesday, center Max Tuerk and quarterback Cody Kessler stayed behind to work on snaps. Tuerk, a junior, has started 14 games at guard and six at tackle. But the Trojans need a center, so he’s learning the position this spring. He learned to tape his fingers -- two rings of tape on two fingers, one ring of tape on the other two -- and to carry a towel, all to keep sweat off the ball. He has learned to stay lower and, as he put it, get his feet in the ground faster. “The more reps you take, you don’t have to think about the snap as much,” Tuerk said. “You can think about the blocks.”

2. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is working more under center this spring. “It’s different,” the redshirt junior said. “Being under center and being in the shotgun are two different views. When you are under center, you are right there. ... You have to take your seven-step drop, push up in the pocket while keeping your shoulders (level).” If Hundley has a peccadillo, it is maintaining the balance of his shoulders. UCLA coach Jim Mora said he wants to work Hundley under center to expand the offense. If it helps Hundley in the 2015 NFL draft, even better.

3. Stanford wide receiver Jordan Pratt will be 29 years old when the football season begins. He enrolled after spending eight seasons pitching in the Dodgers’ minor-league system. “I’ll make a comment, ‘Yeah, I remember, Sept. 11, 2001, I got called out of my high school class,’” Pratt said. His teammates respond, “‘High school? I don’t even remember that. I was in preschool.’ There is this time gap. Sometimes I relate better to the TAs in my class than I do the other students. It’s a lot easier for me to talk to the professors. It’s a little easier for them to relate, too.”

Trojans may soon name starting QB

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
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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.

Helton working hard to perfect the offense

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
12:00
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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.”

Kessler's experience is a difference-maker

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
9:00
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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.

Kessler, Tuerk already have chemistry

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
1:30
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LOS ANGELES -- They are USC football’s MVRs: Most Valuable Roommates.

Cody Kessler and Max Tuerk are two blossoming leaders on offense for a Trojans team making a dramatic transition from an old-fashioned, take-your-time approach to a new-wave, hurry-up, blur of a style.

Tuerk and Kessler are right there in the chaotic middle of the mad rush, both on the field and off.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler, Max Tuerk
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesCenter Max Tuerk and quarterback Cody Kessler often study film together at their off-campus apartment.
Tuerk, the new center, and Kessler, the incumbent quarterback, have already spent hours developing a rapport both at practice, where Tuerk is constantly working on shotgun snaps to Kessler, and at home, where they share an apartment two blocks from campus with wide receiver Nelson Agholor.

“I think living together makes it easier for both Cody and me,” Tuerk said, “because we’re always together, whether it’s just hanging out, playing video games or going out to get something to eat.”

Kessler grew up in Bakersfield loving country music. Tuerk, from the larger, more urban Orange County, has the same musical taste. “Yeah, I love country,” Tuerk said.

“We’re trying to get Nelson in on that, too,” said Kessler, laughing. “But he’s not buying into it.”

What they’re all buying into is new head coach Steve Sarkisian’s rapid tempo, designed to generate more plays and, they all hope, more touchdowns per game.

Kessler obviously is a key figure as the quarterback with the most experience on the roster. Happily for everyone involved, the personable junior has had little trouble adjusting. He seems to be thriving in Sarkisian’s no-huddle atmosphere.

Tuerk, on the other hand, is making a major position change. After playing and starting at both tackle and guard his first two seasons for the Trojans, the 285-pound lineman from Santa Margarita High was moved to center at the start of spring practice. No big deal -- after not having snapped a ball in his life, all he's being asked to do is fill the cleats of smooth Marcus Martin, an All-Pac-12 standout who left a year early for the NFL draft.

It sounds intimidating, except nothing seems to overwhelm Tuerk, who has calmly moved over a spot or two on the offensive line and settled in as if he’d been playing there all his life.

“I love it,” Tuerk said. “I think I’ve adjusted and I feel really good at center. The more reps I get, the more comfortable I feel. So far, I’ve been enjoying it a lot. I especially like calling out the blocking schemes before every play. The way it works is, Cody gets the call from the sideline, he repeats it to me, then I try to read the linebackers and the defensive linemen and make my call.”

When they’re not working on it on the field, they’re busy talking about it in their apartment.

“The cool thing is we watch a lot of film together,” Kessler said. “We’re always talking about what we can do to get better.”

Said Tuerk: “I’m pretty competitive, and I don’t like it when I make mistakes. Cody is great about that. He’s always telling me if there is a mistake that I should forget about it and go on to the next play.”

Added Kessler: “I think Max is doing a great job so far. He is feeling a lot more relaxed out there. The nice thing about us rooming together is that we can get in extra work. This past Sunday, Max, Nelson and I came out here and worked for an hour and a half. Max was snapping the ball to me and Nelson ran routes. It’s nice to be able to do that whenever you want.”

It’s nice to be able to kick back and relax at home, too.

“Yeah, that’s working out really well,” Tuerk said. “Cody and I, we’re both pretty loose. We just seem to get along.”

Not that they aren’t serious about the task at hand.

“It’s pretty much a perfect situation with us,” Kessler said. “We have the same goals -- to win a lot of games and to someday play at the next level.”

In the meantime, somebody cue the country music. Maybe a little Brad Paisley or Taylor Swift to play in the background.

The Trojans’ two MVRs seem more than happy to be working on a new winning groove.

Video: USC's QB competition

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
5:30
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video
ESPN.com's Ted Miller says don't be surprised if new USC coach Steve Sarkisian taps incumbent starter Cody Kessler as his starting quarterback at the end of spring practices.

Can Sarkisian risk a QB controversy?

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
1:30
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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.

Trojans look comfy upon return from break

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
7:01
AM PT
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.

Offense 3-headed monsters: Pac-12 South

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
5:30
PM PT
You remember the three-headed monster, right? It's about returning production that will scare -- terrify! --opponents. Or not.

On offense, it's elite combinations at quarterback, running back and receiver.

On defense, it's elite combinations of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.

[+] EnlargeKevon Seymour, Taylor Kelly
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTaylor Kelly could have Arizona State's offense off and running this fall.
This year, we're breaking things down by division.

First up: South Division offense three-headed monsters.

There are two "pure" offensive three-headed monsters in the South: USC and Utah. Both welcome back their leading passer, rusher and receiver, though some fans might be surprised to know that Marqise Lee didn't lead the Trojans in receiving last season.

The biggest mystery team? Arizona, which is replacing its leading passer and rusher and has several wild cards who might challenge to be the first pass-catching option. Typically we'd project a starter, but the Wildcats seem to be completely wide open at QB and RB. So they get a "?" at both positions.

Otherwise, the projections of new starters aren't terribly unpredictable.

1. Arizona State

QB Taylor Kelly, RB D.J. Foster, WR Jaelen Strong

The skinny: If you were ranking three-headed monsters nationally, this might be a top-10 troika. You have a three-year starter at quarterback who passed for 3,635 yards and 28 TDs last year, a receiver who caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and versatile running back who's dangerous as a runner or receiver.

2. UCLA

QB Brett Hundley, RB Jordan James, WR Devin Fuller

The skinny: Hundley starts the season as a top Heisman Trophy candidate. James started off great last year -- 116 yards rushing per game with a 6.3 yards per carry average in the first four games -- before getting hurt. While WR Shaq Evans is off to the NFL, Fuller leads a strong crew of returning receivers.

3. USC

QB Cody Kessler, RB Javorius Allen, WR Nelson Agholor

The skinny: This is a strong threesome, though some see Kessler being threatened by redshirt freshman Max Browne this spring. Allen surged in the second half of the 2013 season, when he rushed for most of his 785 yards (5.8 yards per carry), but the Trojans have a lot of depth at the position. Agholor is a frontrunner for first-team All-Pac-12 honors after catching 56 passes for 918 yards last year.

4. Utah

QB Travis Wilson, RB Bubba Poole, WR Dres Anderson

The skinny: If Wilson is cleared medically and is 100 percent full-go, he's got a chance to be a good QB, building on what he did while healthy in 2013. Poole is the Utes' leading returning rusher, though he could face a challenge from a handful of other backs, including redshirt freshman Troy McCormick and juco transfer Devontae Booker. Anderson will be joined by Kenneth Scott, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the 2013 opener.

5. Colorado

QB Sefo Liufau, RB Michael Adkins, WR Nelson Spruce

The skinny: Liufau was solid as a true freshman starter last year. He should be much better this fall. Adkins combined with Christian Powell to essentially split 1,000 yards rushing in 2013, with Powell offering the power option. Spruce was a solid No. 2 behind Paul Richardson last year, but it remains to be seen how he will perform as option No. 1.

6. Arizona

QB ?, RB ?, WR Austin Hill

The skinny: We honestly have no idea who will start at QB and RB next year, and the Pac-12 Blog believes that's probably not far from what Rich Rodriguez is thinking today. If we were going to go with complete conjecture at QB, we'd bet on a showdown between Texas transfer Connor Brewer and redshirt freshman Anu Solomon. Same thing at running back, where it seems likely a true or redshirt freshman replaces Ka'Deem Carey. Even Hill is a projection here based on his outstanding 2012 numbers, as he sat out last season with a knee injury. Sophomore Nate Phillips is the Wildcats' leading returning receiver.

Lunch links: Graham likes his offense

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
2:30
PM PT
It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth's dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be left alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.

Mailbag: Sark vs. Petersen

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
7:00
PM PT
Welcome to the mailbag. I'm feeling the madness. And the because the Pac-12 blog readers are so awesome, they've started up another bracket challenge. I'm in.

To the notes!

D.J. in Berkeley writes: Hey Kevin, I grew up in B1G country, so I'm still a little new to the Pac-12. How does inter-divisional conference scheduling work? Is it like the model that the B1G has used the last few years where each team has protected crossover games and rotating crossover games? I love the annual trips down to LA to play UCLA or USC; I'm just not sure why we play two Pac-12 South teams every year.

Kevin Gemmell: With the nine-game conference schedule, the way it shakes out is you play all five teams in your division, four cross-division games and then three nonconference games.

With the exception of the four California schools, it works on a two-year rotating basis. For example, Utah didn’t play Stanford or Oregon its first two years in the conference. Last year, both teams were back on the rotation and they’ll rotate through all the other schools in the North Division every two years.

The California schools have an agreement to play each other every year -- so Stanford and Cal will always play UCLA and USC.

If the league were to go to an eight-game conference schedule, it would drop one of the cross-division games and only play three. Many are in favor of this since the league guts itself on an annual basis (see the final weeks of last season: Stanford beating Oregon, USC beating Stanford, Arizona beating Oregon). When you play nine conference games, wackiness will ensue.

Personally, I still like the nine-game schedule. It means something when you win the Pac-12. Yes, it’s killed the national perception of the league the last few years. But it makes for some exciting scenarios.


Amanda in Los Angeles writes: Thanks for the live chat with Cody Kessler! What do you think is going to happen at quarterback?

Kevin Gemmell: Very interesting question. And one that has some national significance. Obviously, Kessler’s experience is a huge plus for him. And the fact that Steve Sarkisian has retained Clay Helton is also significant. Kessler, on more than one occasion, went out of his way to talk about how strong his relationship is with Helton and you could see a notable increase in Kessler’s efficiency once Helton started calling the plays.

Then again, Sark was a big Max Browne fan when he was at Samammish, Wash., and recruited him pretty hard to the Huskies. I would guess right now it’s about 60-40 in favor of Kessler. Browne is going to have to show that he can run Sark’s offense with greater efficiency than Kessler. The fact that it’s a newish style, complete with the uptempo element, levels the playing field a bit.

Either way, I wouldn’t expect anything to become official in the spring.


Eric in Terrebonne, Ore., writes: Captain Doctor (it's like having two first names, but with titles …) gets another season for the Beavs, which is great news. With all the depth and talent at LB, will the Beavs have the best corps of linebackers in the conference? Will the LBs be good enough to help improve the run defense?

Kevin Gemmell: Yes, it’s hard not to think of the “Spies Like Us” scene. And yes, it’s great news.

The Pac-12 blog has been a Michael Doctor fan for quite some time. The first time he really stood out to me was in the second game of the 2012 season against UCLA at the Rose Bowl. He posted a team-high eight solo tackles (nine total) and I saw him chase down Brett Hundley on a critical third-and-6 in the fourth quarter that forced a UCLA field goal rather than giving the Bruins a first down.

As noted in the story, Oregon State’s defense had a rough go of things last year -- which was disappointing, considering how strong of a unit it was in 2012, so the fact that he’s been granted a fifth year bodes very well for the Beavers this season.

Do they have the best linebackers in the league? That might be a bit much. UCLA’s is pretty good, as is Stanford’s, USC’s and Washington’s. But Oregon State certainly is deep. The only upside to injuries is that they allow younger players to step in and get some experience. When the injured player comes back, it creates depth at the position. Remember in 2011, when Shayne Skov was lost for the year, A.J. Tarpley was one of the players who stepped in. He returns as one of the top linebackers in the league this year and was a major reason why the Cardinal had all of that depth at linebacker the last few years.

No one wants injuries to happen, obviously. But in this scenario, with Doctor returning, it might work out OK for the Beavers, who gave up a whopping 190.3 yards per game on the ground last season. Only Colorado was worse, allowing 208.5 yards per game. Measure that against the 2012 squad, which was third in the league at 129.5 yards per game. Doctor’s presence should significantly help the Beavers improve in that area.


Andy in Seattle writes: I’m pretty shocked with the results of your Sark/Petersen poll. Why aren’t more Washington fans expecting more out of him?

Kevin Gemmell: Honestly, I’m a little surprised also. Then again, I’m not. Does that make sense?

My first thought is that all the pressure is always going to be on Steve Sarkisian, no matter what, because he’s the head coach at USC. And with that comes an elevated level of expectation.

Then again, Chris Petersen is perceived to be a “home run” hire. What happens if Washington goes 7-6? How quickly will the Washington faithful question the hire? What happens if they only win eight games in 2015? Will Petersen be given enough time to do things his way?

My thought is yes. If it were USC, I think the timetable for success is accelerated dramatically. Washington fans are hungry for their team to take the next step. But I also think they are realistic enough to understand the challenges that Petersen faces in his first couple of seasons -- specifically, rebuilding the offense and plugging some holes.

Sarkisian, on the other hand, isn’t going to get much wiggle room. USC has plenty of athletes. It always does. And the expectation is that the Trojans should compete for the Pac-12 South title every season and win it every of couple -- if not every year.

When I was up at USC last week, I had an interesting discussion with someone who will not be named. They told me the worst thing to ever happen to Lane Kiffin was going 10-2 in 2011. If they only win, say, eight games that year, then all of the pressure and expectations that came crumbling down in 2012 wouldn't have been a factor. Fans would have been more understanding, chalked another eight-win season up to the sanctions, and Kiffin would likely still have his job.

But that goes to show how much tougher things are at USC. So, coming full circle, I guess I’m not too surprised with the poll results.


Kevin in Palo Alto writes: Kevin, lots of new names and faces on the blog. What's that all about?

Kevin Gemmell: Yes, the Pac-12 blog is undergoing a bit of a face-lift. You have already welcomed Kyle Bonagura with open arms, and soon you’ll be welcoming Chantel Jennings. Kyle will serve as our Stanford reporter in the Bay Area and Chantel, formerly of the B1G blog covering Michigan, will be the point person for Oregon. Ted and I are still the Pac-12 reporters, but both of them will pitch in on the blog.

This will also allow Ted and I time to finish our screenplay: “Good Will Blogging.” It’s about a janitor at a to-be-determined Pac-12 blog school who sneaks into the student newspaper at night and writes all of the articles. We’re hoping to get into Sundance by 2031.

Give the duo the same warm reception you gave me when I joined on in 2011. More voices means a better blog.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

2013 TEAM LEADERS

PASSINGATTCOMPYDSTD
C. Kessler361236296820
RUSHINGCARYDSAVGTD
J. Allen1357855.814
T. Madden1387035.13
RECEIVINGRECYDSAVGTD
M. Lee5779113.94
N. Agholor5691816.46
TEAMRUSHPASSTOTAL
Offense174.2218.1392.3
TEAMPFPAMARGIN
Scoring28.521.37.2