The thought of another quarterback battle might cause the Trojan family to shudder, after the disastrous one that took place under Lane Kiffin a season ago. Max Wittek and Cody Kessler went toe-to-toe all spring and fall, only to have Kiffin remain undecided through the early weeks of the season.
As fate would have it, Kessler would emerge from all of this a worthy signal-caller, but the headache-inducing offseason of 2013 has yet to be forgotten.
That should change this year, as new head coach Steve Sarkisian stages his own contest for the rights to be QB 1.
For one, Sark has never waited until the fall to name a starting quarterback. That suggests he will have made a decision by the end of spring ball, but whether he makes that public is yet to be determined. Since he wants to start off on the right foot in Troy, we can expect that Sark will have the most important position battle resolved well before practices get more serious.
Sark also has the advantage of having seen everything that went wrong last season, so he knows exactly what he needs to avoid if he wants to steer clear of a similar fate. The best way to install a new offense efficiently is to have a definitive quarterback in the nucleus of it.
After practice last week, Sarkisian spoke with the media about his quarterbacks, and what he has seen in them so far:
The guys are showing some real glimpses of really positive plays, and good plays from the quarterback position. And then, sometimes where they’re playing in a new system, and things are going fast and maybe they don’t make as good of decisions. All in all, I think the quarterbacks are playing relatively well for three days in a new system at the tempo we’re operating at.
Unlike last year, incumbent Kessler and the challenger, Max Browne, are now dealing with both a new coach and a new scheme. That means that Browne's recent high school experience of playing out of the shotgun makes him nearly as attractive of a candidate as Kessler, who has a year of starting experience under his belt.
Furthermore, the uptempo scheme is similar enough to the traditional USC offense that both quarterbacks can pick it up quickly, while also being new and fast enough to create separation between Kessler and Browne, based on skill.
Once that separation happens, we will have a clearer idea of who the starter will be.
Through the first week of spring ball, there hasn't been much drama between the dueling quarterbacks, but both seem to be adapting well to their new situation.
“Obviously the shotgun is a big adjustment but it is similar concepts to Kiffin’s offense and Helton’s offense,” Browne said to the media after last week's practice. “Tempo. The whole team has to adjust to that.”
Kessler—who finished 2013 with 2,968 yards and 20 touchdowns, and would seem to have a distinct competitive edge because of that effort—communicated that despite his performance last year, he's not resting on his laurels this spring.
“I’m just trying to get better every practice. I’ve been competing my whole life. I still compete every time,” Kessler told the media. “It is what it is and I’m going to keep working to continue to get better.”
While Kessler and Browne are showing off their respective skill sets, Sarkisian has said that he has no timetable for naming a starter:
Sarkisian said he would ideally name a QB by the end of spring but doesn’t have that as a deadline.— Rich Hammond (@RegisterUSC) March 15, 2014
Sarkisian notes he's never named a starting QB in the fall and would prefer to name one by the end of spring. Won't commit to that, though— Mike Piellucci (@mikelikessports) March 15, 2014
Not placing specific parameters on the quarterbacks battle allows for it to develop organically, giving each of them a fair opportunity to make a case for himself. Development won't be rushed; rather, the starter will reveal himself after successfully picking up the scheme well enough to show how he would run it.
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That said, we can expect Sark to facilitate this contest much more efficiently than Kiffin did last year because Sark still has a reputation to establish for himself, and how he handles this will greatly influence it.
Over the next month, Sark will make the most important decision of his head coaching stint at USC to date. If all goes well, the lingering ill will from 2013 will finally be a thing of the past.