Max Wittek has a booming arm and big-game experience. Cody Kessler has superior mobility and a level head. Max Browne has limitless potential.
Coach Lane Kiffin has quite a choice on his hands this month when he selects Matt Barkley’s successor as Southern California’s starting quarterback. Until then, the top three candidates for the job are pushing each other relentlessly on the practice field and working together in the film room, waiting to see who gets the call.
”We spend so much time together, (so) why spend all that time being enemies?” Wittek asked. ”We’re all here for the same thing. We all realize one person will end up being the starting quarterback this season, so we’re all good friends. We learn from each other. We think that’s the best way to be. We all know exactly what’s going to happen at the end of the day.”
Kiffin is taking his time on the selection, insisting there’s no clear favorite to replace Barkley, USC’s departed four-year starter and the most prolific passer in Pac-12 history.
Marqise Lee and his fellow Trojans are patiently waiting to learn their new offensive leader’s identity – although Lee is getting a bit antsy.
”I try to spend time with each and every one of them, but I’m going to be pleased to know who the starter is,” said Lee, the Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation’s top receiver last season. ”I wish I knew now. I ask Kiffin all the time, and Kiffin doesn’t tell me anything.”
Instead, training camp features a lively quarterback derby headlined by sophomores Wittek and Kessler, who both learned plenty from backing up Barkley last season. Browne also is firmly in the mix after being named the nation’s top high school player last season.
With little separating the candidates during spring ball and the first few practices of fall, Kiffin thinks the decision is likely to come down to the quarterbacks’ decision-making in preseason scrimmages. USC’s offense features its usual array of exceptional talent, and Kiffin is looking for the quarterback with the coolest head and the smartest moves, not necessarily the most awe-inspiring skills.
”It’s still really early,” Kiffin said with less than four weeks remaining before the Trojans’ Aug. 29 season opener at Hawaii. ”That’s going to be about us watching the film (of scrimmages). It’s not just going to hang on stats. It’s going to be about the whole evaluation of the play.”
But with three touted quarterbacks in camp and only one starting job, it’s clear two Trojans could be left unhappy by Kiffin’s eventual decision. While Browne has time on his side, Kessler and Wittek have both said they won’t seek an immediate transfer if they don’t win the job, with Kessler stridently declaring such a move would go ”against my beliefs.”
Wittek and Kessler both spent last season studying under Barkley, who piled up huge numbers in 47 career starts despite leading only one truly outstanding season for the Trojans in 2011.
”Even in the games where he didn’t necessarily have the greatest games, where he threw multiple interceptions, talking to him when he came over to the sideline was remarkable,” Wittek said. ”He was just completely focused. That was good for all of us to see, being able to keep that level head. The past is the past. You can’t do anything about it. Just move forward with a level head.”
Wittek benefited from his abrupt introduction to big-game pressure last fall. When Barkley was sidelined with a sprained shoulder, Wittek started the Trojans’ final two games, losing to Notre Dame and again to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl to complete the Trojans’ slide from a preseason No. 1 ranking to a 7-6 finish.
”I’ve grown a lot, matured, being able to get that Sun Bowl and Notre Dame experience under my belt,” Wittek said. ”But the past is the past. Moving into this season, I’ve got a competition ahead of me.”
Wittek is thought to have the strongest arm in camp, but Kessler has uncorked a series of lengthy throws in the first few days, saying he ”took it personal” when he heard about criticism of his deep balls. Kessler is considered more mobile than Wittek, who fits the pro-style pocket passing traditionally favored by USC.
Kessler wasn’t thrilled when Wittek got last season’s final starts ahead of him, but the former high school point guard channeled that energy into preparation for erasing last season’s slide. He came out of spring practice with marginally better reviews than Wittek from the Trojans’ coaching staff.
”I think we’re focused on right now, because that’s all you can do,” Kessler said. ”There’s still that bad taste in our mouth, but that’s the point, to come out and not let that happen again.”
Browne, the highly rated product of the Seattle suburbs, is likely to redshirt this season if Kessler and Wittek both stay healthy. Yet Browne is treating his first Trojans camp as an audition for the job he’s expected to win in coming seasons – and the 18-year-old has added muscle to his 6-foot-5, 224-pound frame since arriving at USC.
”It’s still fast, and I’m still getting used to it,” Browne said. ”But before (training camp), everything was spinning. Now, it’s slowing down.”