One of the most anticipated positional battles of the spring will be occurring on USC's campus next month—Max Wittek vs. Max Browne vs. Cody Kessler.
Already some voluntary workouts have started to spring up on campus, and one of the quarterbacks who has his sights set on the starting spot—true freshman Max Browne—has some thrown some passes. His first pass in the practice was reportedly intercepted by George Uko.
So yeah, this quarterback battle is going to be interesting because USC could be anointing another four-year starting quarterback in Max Browne or possibly a three-year starter in Cody Kessler or Max Wittek. It's anyone's job for the taking for the first time in several years, and while all three are highly decorated, each has some tangibles that separate him from the others.
Max Browne has absolutely no collegiate experience, but he comes in as the Gatorade National Player of the Year. The 6'5", 215-pound freshman has enrolled early so he can compete for the starting spot, and the former 5-star prospect will certainly be closely watched.
Browne is a pocket passer, but according to Scout recruiting analyst Greg Biggins, Browne "moves around better than given credit for and can make every throw." This is fairly important since USC will have lost center Khaled Holmes to the 2013 NFL draft and will be without one of its most dependable and best pass-blockers this season.
Browne's mechanics are turnkey—according to Biggins, "mechanically, you could do an instruction video on him as his ball placement, release, and drops are college level right now." The biggest drawback to Browne is that he won't have the playbook down and his grasp of sideline communications will be minimal—the coaches are going to have to keep it simple for him.
Still, Browne is the most decorated quarterback of the three vying for the starting job—he was the No. 1 quarterback in the class of 2013—and his growth and maturity over the summer could determine whether or not he redshirts this year.
Browne's highlights below:
Cody Kessler has been almost the forgotten quarterback. The former 4-star prospect from Bakersfield, Ca. has somewhat disappeared from the spotlight while his classmate from the class of 2011, Max Wittek, has jumped ahead of him on the depth charts. Kessler will be a redshirt sophomore and has had two years to memorize the playbook, but he hasn't seen much action on the field, going 2-of-2 for nine yards against Colorado last year.
Kessler is a pro-style quarterback, but because he's not as tall (6'1", 215) as either Browne or Wittek, he looks a little more agile in the pocket—he's not a scrambler, but he has good escapability and can throw very well on the run when he gets flushed out. Kessler is also a very muscular quarterback and looks like he can fight off some potential sacks. His arm doesn't look quite as strong as Browne's, but he has great touch on the deep ball.
Kessler's highlights below:
Max Wittek looked like the heir-apparent to Matt Barkley when Barkley went down with a shoulder injury against UCLA—Wittek started the Trojans' final two games last season. Despite USC losing to Notre Dame 22-13, the former 4-star prospect looked like USC's quarterback of the future. The 6'4", 235-pound Wittek went 14-of-23 for 186 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions and gave USC fans a sneak peak at the future—so far, so good.
Wittek's 2012 Sun Bowl performance wasn't very good—the winds were swirling in the stadium and he just couldn't seem to adjust to the blustery conditions. Wittek went 14-of-37 for 107 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions in USC's 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech. More concerning is that despite Wittek's height, four of his passes were deflected at the line of scrimmage, and he looked at times like a deer in headlights against an average defense. Maybe he just had a bad day.
Wittek's highlights below:
Head coach Lane Kiffin announced over the weekend that quarterbacks coach Clay Helton has been promoted to offensive coordinator. It remains to be seen if Helton (or Kiffin) will be calling the plays, but one thing Kiffin can do to help his young quarterbacks is to improve his own clock management skills—Trojan fans were accustomed to seeing precious seconds tick off the clock with the game's outcome still in doubt.
Against Arizona, Kiffin chose to pass the ball instead of spiking it and that ostensibly cost USC the game. LA Times columnist Rich Hammond waxed poetic over the poor clock management skills Kiffin displayed in that 39-36 loss, and maybe that's why it's so difficult to be calling the plays and keeping track of the time at the same time—maybe Kiffin could help himself and his quarterbacks if he chose between being the head coach and being the offensive coordinator instead of doing both jobs.
In any case, three quarterbacks will be fighting it out to be named the next Trojan quarterback.
Who will be No. 1 on the post spring depth chart?
Do you go with Max Wittek, who has had two full games under his belt, but when under pressure, he short-armed passes and struggled to give the offense rhythm?
Do you go with the quarterback with the highest ceiling, Max Browne, who will be green with the playbook and even greener understanding the play signals from the sideline?
Or do you go with quarterback Cody Kessler, who hasn't had a chance to prove himself, hasn't been in the mix as a reserve and is, so far, the underdog in this competition?
More importantly, if USC employs more spread formations to ignite the offense, which quarterback would be able to run it most efficiently?
This spring, we'll get to see if Wittek can improve his poise under pressure—it also gets very windy during spring practices in LA—and use his experience to impress both Helton and Kiffin. We'll get to see if Max Browne is the real deal and really is as ready to play as some scouts have suggested. We'll also get to see if a quarterback who has flown under the radar can finally have a breakout spring and fall camp.
More importantly, we'll get to see if the guy calling the plays into his quarterback's helmet is Lane Kiffin.
As we've seen last year, the quarterback is only as good as the plays he's been fed.