2014 USC Football Preview: Quarterback


Cody Kessler survived the offseason drama last year to earn the starting position. After a shaky start he began to look the part of USC quarterback, by the end of it all earning MVP honors against Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas bowl.

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Despite the efforts of challenger Max Browne in spring camp, Kessler has had a fairly calm 2014 by comparison.

With the starting job secured in the spring, he has been able to focus his efforts on learning Steve Sarkisian’s new uptempo offense.

Of course, he’ll have plenty to prove this season beyond just navigating the changes in scheme and coaching staff. With the weight of USC’s lofty quarterbacking tradition sitting on his shoulders, 2014 is about proving that he deserves his place among the likes of Matt Barkley, John David Booty and Mark Sanchez, not to mention Heisman winners Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer.

What happened last year:

The season began with controversy as Lane Kiffin declined to select a starter, instead splitting games into halves for Kessler and rival Max Wittek to continue their offseason battle. That disastrous decision led to a questionable start for both and an embarrassingly ineffective display during the upset loss to Washington State at the Coliseum, which began Kiffin’s eventual spiral into an early season firing.

Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

In his first game as the true starter, Kessler put in one of his best statistical performances completing 88.2% of his passes against Boston College for 237 yards and two touchdowns.

After a considerably more concerning performance against Utah State and then a two-interception outing in the loss to Arizona State, it seemed as though Kessler would never get the Trojan offense off its feet.

As it turns out, Kiffin’s firing heralded new life for Kessler, who slowly and steadily found the ground beneath his feet under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Clay Helton. His solid performances as a game manager coincided with USC’s late-season resurgence. In five games in November his quarterback rating was third in the conference.

Hwever, it wasn’t until the Trojan’s romping victory against Fresno State that Kessler showed a flash of the higher ceiling he might actually possess.

In an MVP performance, Kessler passed for 344 yards and four touchdowns with a completion percentage of 73.3 and a quarterback rating of 206.

What’s gone on in camp:

Kessler fended off the advances of Browne during the Spring and was announced as the starter by Sarkisian as soon as it was over, leaving Fall camp for learning more than competing.

During camp, Kessler has been praised for putting to bed concerns about his arm strength, showing the ability to hit receivers running routes all over the field.

Offensive coordinator also singled out his improving ability to anticipate his receivers with his throws, setting them up to make plays downfield after the catch.

With the offense running so many plays at such a high tempo it hasn’t been completely smooth, but progress has been made.

There was a major scare in practice last week when Kessler stayed grounded after having his ankle rolled on during a scrimmage at the Coliseum, but with no harm done the Trojans can breath easy with the starting QB healthy and ready to go for opening day against Fresno State.

Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

What to expect:

Trojan fans watched Kessler grow up before their eyes in the topsy-turvy 2013 season. However, 2014 comes with significantly less leniency for the redshirt junior quarterback in terms of expectations.

Though he will be breaking in a new system, Kessler’s second season as a starter will be all about building on the foundations he laid last year.

With the help of a strong stable of running backs, it will be Kessler’s job to manage the offense with intelligent and efficient play. While he may not be called upon to win games for the Trojans the way Matt Leinart or Matt Barkley did, he will need to prove that he can handle to pressure of quarterbacking USC with poise.

Can he be one of the Pac-12’s top quarterbacks? That’s tough sledding, but it also isn’t entirely impossible. After all, half of Marcus Mariota’s exceptional play at Oregon has been about keeping the offense ticking by doing the little things right and protecting the football.

Who will break out:

Even a good season wouldn’t exactly be a break out season for Kessler — unless he surprised the nation by turning himself into a Heisman contender — but Browne could certainly turn some heads if anything were to befall Kessler during the course of the year.

Though he fell short in the offseason quarterbacking competition, Browne will be waiting in the wings and USC will feel blessed to have him there as a solid back up plan.