Max Wittek is out, which means more reps for Max Browne. A starting true freshman? Don't count it out.
By RAHSHAUN HAYLOCKFS West
LOS ANGELES – The three-man race to be Matt Barkley’s successor is down to two, momentarily. The battle between Max Wittek, Cody Kessler, and Max Browne is less a Max. Wittek, that is.
USC third-year sophomore has a sprained MCL in his right knee, he announced Tuesday.
Although Kiffin and Wittek agree the injury won't set the quarterback back, if either Kessler or Browne can step up and set the world on fire, that would be hard to argue. It wouldn't be anything that's never happened before.
Remember Aaron Corp and Matt Barkley?
There are some similarities to draw from the 2009 quarterback battle. Corp was a redshirt sophomore at the time and the starter. He suffered a cracked fibula and had to miss time in summer camp, which gave then-freshman Barkley a grand opportunity he wouldn't relinquish.
Corp's injury was a lot more serious than Wittek's is believed to be. Still, every rep missed by Wittek is a rep for Kessler and more importantly Browne to close the gap.
Browne, who said he had "first-day struggles," mainly played out of the shotgun formation in high school, so he is adjusting to taking snaps from under center.
"The footwork is not totally new," he said, "but as far as getting under there, that's something I've got to get used to quickly.
"I feel like I can make all the throws and be a good decision-maker for the team," he said. "Not turn the ball over — that's the main thing. But I'm well aware that it's going to take awhile for me to adjust."
Wittek did not participate in the scrimmage, which allowed all of the reps of the team's first scrimmage of the spring to go to Kessler and Browne. Kessler, a third-year sophomore as well, completed 12-of-15 passes for 192 yards. Browne, a freshman, was 4-of-7 for 48 yards.
USC head coach Lane Kiffin said Wittek’s injury is not going to affect the competition. “It does nothing besides give those guys more reps,” Kiffin said. “It’s not going to set (Wittek) back.”
In the first practice since Wittek’s injury neither Kessler nor Browne did anything to separate themselves in what Kiffin called “not one of our better practices.” If Tuesday's practice was any indication, at the least, it provides a learning lesson for Kessler and Browne --how to deal with pressure in your face, pocket presence, and going to your checkdowns when the situation calls for it.
Both struggled with that. The USC defense under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast gave the offense fits and the front five repeatedly showed up in the face of Kessler and Browne. Kiffin said the strong showing by the defense contributed to the poor play but was just a part of it for an offense that didn’t look sharp. With Wittek out, it allows Kessler and Browne to show what kind of leaders they are. There was a lapse in focus on Tuesday which often times could be attributed to the quarterback.
“I didn’t think the offense practiced very well, mentally, and just really wasn’t into it the way they had been the three practices before,” Kiffin said.
Wittek did not participate in Tuesday’s practice and his status for the remainder of the week is questionable.
Trojans will hit the practice field on Thursday and Saturday before taking a week off for spring break. It’s quite possible Wittek could use that additional time to get healthy before the team completes their final nine workouts after the break.
“Spring break would be a nice week to have off and rest it,” Wittek said. “I may take that route just depending on how it feels.”
In the meantime, Wittek continues to rehab his right knee twice, sometimes three times a day. On Tuesday, he began jogging on the underwater treadmill in the team’s new McKay Center. He also goes through numerous cycles of a cold compression wrap. He says it’s the type of injury that can’t get any worse by him playing on it but he will have to deal with the pain that comes with the injury when he gets back on the field once the swelling goes down.
Wittek hurt his knee during drills before last Saturday’s scrimmage at the Coliseum. At the time, he was acting as a holder during field goal drills. The one-hopper of a snap bounced in between his legs. As he stood up and turned around, an offensive lineman was pushed into his knee.
Wittek, meanwhile, is trying to be as positive as he possibly can while dealing with having to miss time with the starting quarterback job on the line.
“Nothing’s torn,” Wittek said. “That’s a positive to start with.
“Being able to spend all of this extra time mentally with my teammates, watch all this film, dissect things in a different aspect, I think, sometimes that’s a little bit better than physical stuff.”