Whether it is the slightly more experienced Max Wittek or Cody Kessler who emerges with the USC Trojans' starting quarterback job before the 2013 season, the team's offense should yet again be potent.
On Sunday, Lindsey Thiry of Fox Sports and Scout.com reported that immensely talented freshman Max Browne was out of the derby. That dwindled down the competition to two horses to lead the Trojans into a brand new era of intrigue and uncertainty.
In the prior four years, quarterback has been the position of least concern for the storied college football program.
Matt Barkley—who received hype years before he set foot on USC's campus—lived up to his lofty billing by starting all four years under center, beginning as a true freshman in 2009.
Such a development was unprecedented, and now that Browne is out of the running, it's not likely to happen again anytime soon.
In any event, the Trojans will have options on the offensive side of the ball whether it's Wittek or Kessler taking the reins. Head coach and play-caller Lane Kiffin put a lot on Barkley to drive the offense, but with more inexperience at QB, he will be forced to establish the run more essentially by default.
Newly promoted offensive coordinator Clay Helton served as the passing-game coordinator last year. Gone are Barkley and stellar wide receiver Robert Woods to the NFL, but still in the fold is the dynamic, likely Heisman contender Marqise Lee and a bevy of ball-carriers in the backfield. It should be noted that Lee is currently "day-to-day with [a] bone bruise injury," according to the Associated Press via USA Today.
Led by senior and Penn State transfer Silas Redd, the Trojans shouldn't be quite as high-flying as a season ago, which isn't a discouraging development.
This is a critical year for Kiffin, whose team finished 7-6 in 2012 after being ranked No. 1 in the nation in preseason polls. Turnovers and penalties haunted the team, as did lackluster defense. Monte Kiffin's renowned Tampa 2, 4-3 alignment did not quite translate to the collegiate level with the success he'd had in the pros.
With the defense in flux amidst a transition to a new scheme, keeping them off the field as much as possible will be ideal. By pounding the rock and relying on what is probably the deepest position on offense for the Trojans, the turnovers should decrease.
Injuries have actually generated a lot of opportunities this offseason for skill players to blossom. Redd and D.J. Morgan have been recovering from knee injuries, thus creating reps for others, including Tre Madden, who's coming off an ACL tear but was a standout in the spring of 2012.
The 6'1", 220-pound Madden should provide a powerful option likely backing up Redd, as he's yet again looked strong ahead of the regular season.
A big scare came in the form of Lee suffering a bone bruise in his shoulder, but it was clearly not as big a deal as it could have been.
In the meantime, he's been rooming with talented freshman Darreus Rogers in training camp. According to the Los Angeles Times' Gary Klein, Lee's mentoring is helping Rogers emerge as a legitimate threat to contribute in a big way at this early juncture in his college career.
Nelson Agholor had limited opportunities behind Woods and Lee last year but has the chance to emerge from their shadows after averaging nearly 18 yards per catch on 19 receptions as a freshman.
The key will be for either Wittek or Kessler to make defenses respect the passing game. Having a weapon like Lee on the outside will certainly go a long way in doing that, but each QB has his strengths.
For Wittek, his cannon arm will help stretch the field. Another year and an offseason in Lane Kiffin's offense also can't hurt.
On the other hand, Kessler has thrown just two passes in his career and is a sophomore like the man he's battling for the starting gig.
What's exciting is that he has the element of mobility that could make play action particularly effective—and add a fascinating facet to the USC offense.
Athleticism and the threat to run from the quarterback position is something the Trojans simply haven't had. Many pure pocket passers have passed through the program in recent memory—Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty, Mark Sanchez and Barkley.
It's not as though Kessler has a popgun arm, either, because he is fully capable of making every throw Kiffin's pro-style attack demands.
Kiffin noted a few months ago how reigning Pac-12 champion Stanford and the BCS national champion Alabama Crimson Tide both play a physical brand of football. They pound the rock, use play action and help the defense as a result.
That should be the Trojans' type of recipe for success in 2013.
Neither Wittek nor Kessler has to play like future NFL stars for the Trojans to have success. Managing the game wisely with smart decisions and strong leadership intangibles should keep the well-oiled USC machine operating a little more smoothly, if not quite as explosively.
A No. 24 ranking in the initial USA Today poll has the expectations lowered a bit, but the Trojans could very well return to prominence soon with a more methodical and steadily operated offense.
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