USC Football: Who Will Be the Trojans Starting QB in 2014?
USC, as we grew to know it this season, is already just a trail of cookie crumbs. Lane Kiffin and Ed Orgeron are growling and scowling on the unemployment line, and no one left behind should sense security, including Cody Kessler.
New head coach Steve Sarkisian is effectively opening up every roster spot for competition in the offseason, meaning that this past spring's quarterback carousel will be in service once more. As players heal from injury, depart for the NFL draft or accept Pat Haden's limited supply of scholarships, one thing that's certain is the Trojans' three current signal callers — Kessler, Max Browne and Max Wittek — are fixated in yet another race toward the starting job.
For the sake of the fanbase's sanity, this is a decision that needs to be made fast.
Sarkisian hopes to evaluate everyone through practices, but Wittek's disadvantage appears insurmountable. He squandered multiple on-field opportunities with a Sun Bowl loss and a career 52.6 completion percentage and was nowhere close to being considered by the University of Washington upon his recruitment in 2011.
That leaves the incumbent and improved Kessler, and prized prospect Browne. Who emerges victorious, and which of Sark's criteria or preconceptions will prove to be the determining factor?
Allow the Coliseum to host a 100-yard decathlon it was destined for.
Hasty decision-making bodes well for Sarkisian's intended up-tempo scheme. USC is evolving from the traditional pro-style approach they nested this entire century to more trendy spread and hurry-up attacks. A youthful stable of running backs (Tre Madden, Javorius Allen, Ty Isaac and Justin Davis) should still be leaned on, but don't expect too many direct snaps or "Chris Petersens."
Reign of Troy indicates how Kessler and Browne will be "encouraged to play to their unique strengths." Luckily for Sark, both of them showcased mobility and capability in high school through similar offenses, according to Los Angeles Times' Gary Klein.
Browne is guiltless of in-game bubble screens, thereby raw and impressionable enough for the incoming coaching staff. That being said, it's Kessler's protection of the football and enhanced control of chaos that ultimately suits this or any team's vision. His six interceptions are barely edged out by the Huskies' Keith Price, whose 13 picks thrown in 2012 was reduced to to five after Sark's changes this spring.
Game plans were flipped on Kessler's watch once. He can adapt again.
Advantage = Kessler.
An interview with Rahshaun Haylock reminds us that Kessler played point guard back at Bakersfield Centennial High School, offering athleticism and versatility. Kessler "relishes his team's success in opposing venues," highlighting poise on the road; his 67.6 completion percentage, 8.05 YPA and 146.3 passer rating away from the Coliseum all surpass his season averages. Ed Orgeron's inauguration against Arizona released the Kess, who heaved 62 yards for an opening touchdown and later scrambled for an additional 34.
The tools and intangibles are there, but ancient rulers deemed football a game of inches (or meters depending on the ruler), and Scout.com gives Max Browne a healthy 6-foot-5 frame.
Diminutive size works well at the collegiate level for the Collin Kleins of the gridiron, but Cody Kessler is many drives and penalty flags away from comparisons to Drew Brees. Conversely, 5-star specimen Browne cannot be wasted regardless of Saturdays or Sundays.
If you plant him, he will grow…no so much vertically since he's a mature man, but by NFL-caliber mass.
Advantage = Browne
Whether Sark can spin cardinal into gold on his third try or his talk is hollow nostalgia, it shall not be doubted that USC's championship coordinator orchestrates quarterback voodoo.
Mark Sanchez with Sarkisian? Zero butt fumbles. Sanchize post-Sarkisian? This gem.
Their professional shortcomings aside, Sark wasn't hired by the Oakland Raiders again. Pat Haden summoned him to muster magic and elongate the list of Trojan legends under center.
USC prefers stability at the position with three- or four-year starters a la Palmer, Leinart and Matt Barkley. The question becomes if Sark would rather inherit Kessler and unearth 3,000 passing yards and 30 touchdowns, or take pride in electing his own regime as head honcho with redshirts lined up in his favor.
Advantage = Browne
More eerie than their potential similarities on the field is a common link in their stories before stepping cleat on campus. Washington pursued Kessler in 2011 and Browne in 2012, and both scorched Seattle for Hollywood.
Why did the latter opt for USC in the end? As Jeff Taylor detected upon his commitment, "only one QB gets to play at a time." Browne understood he could be stuck behind Keith Price for as many as two years, and rationed it more seamless to compete early and successfully among the likes of Kessler and Wittek.
In hindsight, Browne is exempt from any future blue-wire cutting assignments.
Kessler yearned to stay in California, ESPN's Johnny Curren reports, but had this to add regarding his now premeditated coach: “I can honestly say that (Sark) probably did the best job of recruiting me. He was real, and he was straight-up.”
Either extreme damage control with bonus splotches of territorial urine are underway, or it turns out that Sarkisian followed Kessler home instead. Both guys were briefly branded as "Sark's" during recruitment, but although ties to Browne are more recent, Kessler's verbal eagerness and overall presence suggest that he's acting like it.
Advantage = Kessler
Kessler's 2013 Campaign
Vision and composure under duress, the gutsiness to deliver on 4th-and-2 and the aforementioned unwillingness to turn the ball over all punctuate Kessler's nationally underrated 2013 campaign. Flashes of Alex Smith arise when it comes to someone who doesn't win contests with astronomical numbers but manages the game with few enough mistakes to not lose it.
The problem with such an analogy is how it manufactures a ceiling, especially for fans and coaches who value sexy yet arbitrary milestones. Kessler failed to reach 300 passing yards (whereas Keith Price cashed in five times) or three touchdowns all season. His 295-yard outing at Arizona State is blemished by the fact that it was a shootout in which he hurled multiple interceptions. Credit that loss to Lane Kiffin and company, but it's a foreseeable wall Sarkisian must help him climb in this adopted system.
Does the experience amid adversity automatically warrant Kessler the gig, or has Sark subconsciously seen enough tape and box scores to grant an absorbent freshman a turn?
For the time being, Kessler's accomplishments and flexibility are nothing short of miraculous, so exercise the option in this case.
Advantage = Kessler
Lost in the hoopla that was Coach O is his appointed play-caller. Clay Helton re-energized the offense's X's and O's, matching Orgeron's intensity with a renewed commitment to mixing up pacing and distributing the football to everyone, even blocking fullback Soma Vainuku.
Though wide receivers coach Tee Martin survived the cut, the players learned not to grow attached to anybody. The influx of Sark's staff began upon the arrival of Washington assistants Johnny Nansen (running backs), Keith Heyward (secondary) and Peter Sirmon (linebackers). The ground game and defensive effort, however, are highly considered USC's strongest attributes in 2013; four backs averaged over five yards per carry, and the Trojans tied for No. 14 nationally with 35 sacks and No. 19 overall with 16 interceptions.
Meanwhile, just as a departing Orgeron covets greener pastures, Helton is available come December 22nd to a fill a void in, say, the swamps of Florida, speculated Robbie Andreu. It's the business of the sport, for every moment on or off the field is an inevitable audition to move up, and that logic is not exclusively for the players.
The fates of Helton and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will determine how clean Sark wishes his slate to be. After the ascertained wisdom from undergoing a coaching change midseason, Kessler is more equipped to cope and morph (and "pro-counterpart" Alex Smith endured five different OCs from 2005 to 2009). Browne, on the other hand, is completely fresh to mold and therefore unaffected.
Sark is keeping the rubber gloves on, especially in EVK...
Advantage = Browne
Time will tell shortly if Marqise Lee — a former top-flight NFL draft prospect before the drops and injury riddles — falls into Barkley's senior trap or bolts early akin to Robert Woods. Silas Redd leads a list of graduating Trojans offered by B/R's Rick McMahan, and Justin Davis and the rest of the Trojan infirmary all but literally lick their wounds healed. The offensive line will be so new ("at least five" according to the LA Times), USC should fear booster allegations and additional NCAA sanctions.
The depth chart overhaul is pinpointing every position, which could further aid the quarterback controversy. In college football, consistency is far less frequent, but any established relationships should then be cherished. Kessler and Nelson Agholor, for example, developed into a reliable constant by season's end:
First five games: 11 receptions (including zero catches in a loss to Washington State; 192 yards; 1 touchdown.
Last eight games: 40 receptions; 632 yards; 3 touchdowns.
A returning and previously constrained Xavier Grimble can easily build a rapport with Browne, as will the newcomers. Nonetheless, certain elements of this roster are not broken, and Kessler is trained to weather the Los Angeles winds.
Advantage = Kessler
Whomever Sarkisian chooses, will the other be content in a reserve role? Browne has already waited a year, and Kessler has tasted glory that rarely any football player or human wishes to relinquish.
Reserve the Bing Theater for a cover duet of Wicked's "For Good," with Pat Haden's guest cameo as a flying monkey.
Max Wittek has expressed disinterest in transferring, and as B/R's Trenise Ferreira questions, he is the pro-style third option? What is keeping a more accomplished Kessler and touted Browne from walking, though, and should Sark cave to the threat of losing either one of them?
Browne is a 5-star recruit. In this now-or-never mentality of sports, it's an inevitable bruise on the program if he isn't taken full advantage of. Kessler, on the other hand, values Trojan lore and such team spirit calls for a more graceful backseat.
Advantage = Browne
Las Vegas Audition
The Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl is not the stage Cardinal 'n' Gold parties were aspiring toward, but it's a stage. With Clay Helton marketing himself for Steve Sarkisian or other schools, Cody Kessler strives to keep Trojan pride alive…as well as his starting job prospects.
It's increasingly more than Max Browne can boast, since he has only practices to gift-wrap for Sark.
The task is spelled out clearly: If USC can match step or even footprint with Fresno State's Derek Carr — the nation's leader in passing yardage (4,866) and touchdowns (48), then it provides Sarkisian evidence and replenished confidence in Kessler's future. Should the Trojans stumble, the same can be applied to Browne's impatient career.
It's the reality of the sports attention deficit disorder. If failures against two rivals in Notre Dame and UCLA can outweigh Coach O's six other victories, then another December bowl loss for the Trojans could halt Kessler, but at least he has this final opportunity to fight on.
Advantage = Kessler
Consistency or overhaul? That is the overriding theme of this debate and Sarkisian's infantile tenure (twice removed) with USC.
Max Browne has "clean slate" written all over his bubble-wrapped body, as his physicality and potential pedigree flaunt ineffable promise. Cody Kessler is Ed Orgeron's stepchild, and Sark is paving Trousdale for his own legacy.
Nevertheless, if recapturing USC's glory days is the ultimate goal, then extended loyalty to the quarterback that inexplicably brought the Trojans this far would send a resounding message. If the abandoned visor were to hang on something in 2013, it is the evolution of the kid from Bakersfield.
Turmoil abundant, Cody Kessler has earned the starting job indefinitely.
Advantage and Victory = Kessler
Transfer to Boise State, Max Browne…that'll show everybody.