There should be no quarterback controversy at No. 25 USC this offseason—not with how redshirt sophomore Cody Kessler finished the 2013 campaign.
Kessler's 22-of-31, 344-yard, four-touchdown performance in a 45-20 rout of No. 20 Fresno State in Saturday's Las Vegas Bowl was his best game statistically. However, it wasn't the sole indicator of the remarkable turnaround he underwent during 2013.
The Las Vegas Bowl was the culmination of a season-long maturation for Kessler, which was central to USC's 7-2 finish.
Saturday's win was No. 10 for the Trojans, who were playing for their third head coach in a tumultuous season. A fourth now takes over, with Steve Sarkisian named the full-time replacement to Lane Kiffin earlier this month.
With 5-star 2013 signee Max Browne waiting after redshirting this season, Sarkisian inherits an intriguing quarterback situation. Browne is reminiscent of the quarterbacks Sarkisian coached to Heisman Trophies and first-round NFL draft status in his previous tours of duty at USC as an assistant, boasting prototypical professional size and countless prep honors.
But in the season's second half, Kessler proved his worth on the field. He was the consummate game manager, complementing the potent and multifaceted run game on which the USC offense was built. His completion percentage never dipped below 60 percent in any of the Trojans' final seven games, and he threw just three interceptions in the last nine outings.
The case for Kessler to spend the 2014 offseason as an unencumbered No. 1 gets a boost with news that Clay Helton, interim head coach Saturday and USC's offensive coordinator throughout the season, will be retained on Sarkisian's staff, per Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times.
Kessler has a fan in Helton, who called the quarterback "an absolute general" in the postgame press conference, per Evan Budrovich of Conquest Chronicles.
Fresno State's secondary isn't exactly a world-beater. The Bulldogs gave up 547 passing yards to San Jose State's David Fales in their only prior loss on Nov. 29.
But Kessler's career afternoon was indicative of more than just his playing against an overmatched unit, as former scout and current NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah tweeted.
Kessler has been impressive with his pocket presence/movement. No panic vs pressure. Big improvement from earlier this season.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) December 21, 2013
Indeed, Kessler's improved pocket presence was on full display—perhaps no more so than on his 40-yard touchdown connection with sophomore wide receiver Nelson Agholor in the first quarter.
With Fresno State defensive coordinator Nick Toth calling for an aggressive blitz, Kessler shrugged off the pressure, held his ground and uncorked a beautiful ball to his streaking target.
Earlier in the season, Kessler likely would have taken a sack. He was often left scrambling through the first month, playing behind an offensive line that was trying to establish its rhythm. Such was the downfall of a USC team that once sat at 3-2 and 0-2 against Pac-12 competition—it lacked an offensive identity.
Kiffin's lack of commitment to a clear No. 1 quarterback became a microcosm for the Trojans offense in that stretch. Kessler's quarterback competition with Max Wittek extended throughout last spring and preseason camp and wasn't settled until two weeks into the campaign.
Once the offense found its rhythm, the Trojans rolled. And that offense clicked with Kessler and redshirt sophomore running back Javorius Allen working together, as was the case Saturday. Allen rushed for 87 yards and two touchdowns to finish the year with 14.
Agholor's production also took off as Kessler progressed. His four best games were all in October or later, including Saturday's 94-yard effort. And Allen, Agholor and Kessler are all back in 2014.
Kessler's not without areas needing improvement. USC continuously struggled to score points in second halves even after the coaching change, most notably in third quarters, when it managed just 68 points in 14 games. The Las Vegas Bowl was no exception; all four of Kessler's touchdown passes came before intermission, excluding the interception Fresno State's Derron Smith returned for a touchdown.
While the second-half slowdown is indicative of a complete team issue, including the lack of players available due to NCAA sanctions and injuries, the offense's direction starts with the quarterback. Still, Kessler has already proven an ability to make marked improvement in short order.
With the strides Kessler made in just a few weeks, just imagine the wonders an offseason can do for him.