USC freshman quarterback Max Wittek knows he’s inexperienced.
Consequently, he knows that as a 17-year-old, first-year signal caller, big things are expected of him as a potential backup to junior quarterback Matt Barkley come August.
“I definitely need to learn a lot more in terms of the playbook and just getting used to the environment of the offense,” Wittek said following Tuesday’s early morning practice. “But I think I’m doing well. Of course, there’s always room for improvement. I just have to get into the playbook and keep studying.”
With a seasoned Barkley essentially guaranteed to start the team’s Sept. 3 season opener at home against Minnesota, Wittek is currently in the midst of a three-way quarterback battle with fellow freshmen Cody Kessler and Jesse Scroggins to supplant a graduating Mitch Mustain as the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart.
“You’re not looking for that guy to have a 400-yard passing game,” said USC coach Lane Kiffin earlier this spring. “He’s not going to get a lot of repetitions during the week in preparation, so he’s going to be a guy who approaches the game very seriously. He has to be a guy who can go in there at any time and run the offense.”
In other words, Kiffin and quarterbacks coach Clay Helton are looking for a backup who can fill in for Barkley in case of injury.
That’s certainly a plausible scenario; during the last two seasons, Barkley has suffered various ailments that have sidelined him for two games — against Washington in 2009 and Notre Dame in 2010. In those games, USC is 0-2.
Against Washington, then-sophomore Aaron Corp completed just 13-of-22 passes for 110 yards and an interception. USC lost on a last-second field goal, 16-13.
Against Notre Dame, Mustain completed just 20-of-37 passes for 177 yards and an interception. Similarly, USC lost 20-16.
“I guess it’s important for me to stay healthy,” Barkley said with a smile. “But it is important for those guys to be ready as well. Who knows what’ll happen this year. Hopefully more than one of those guys will be ready in case something happens.”
But among the three potential backups, none have taken a snap under center during a college game.
Scroggins, who arrived on campus last fall, redshirted last season and headed the scout team during practices.
Kessler and Wittek, who should technically be picking up corsages for their high school proms, enrolled in January to better grasp the playbook.
“It’s been crucial,” Wittek said of being able to participate in spring practice. “To have that much of an edge on the playbook before coming in the fall is really important. It’s always nice to get used to the entire college environment as well. It’s been good. I feel very comfortable here.”
But although Wittek, who played at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif. like Barkley, is most similar to the Trojans’ starter in terms of arm strength, footwork and delivery, Kessler and Scroggins might have the edge this fall.
Statistically, Kessler is among the leaders in terms of completion percentage this spring, while Scroggins, who redshirted in the fall, remains the most experienced of the group.
Accuracy and experience continue to be areas of emphasis for USC’s coaching staff.
But in spite of such circumstances, Kiffin remarked last week there is no pecking order yet, and the trio continues to split snaps evenly.
“We’re pushing them as hard as we can,” Kiffin said. “We’re giving them a lot of reps. It’s great for them to be here.”
Based on talent and past accolades, all are at least serviceable.
Kessler and Wittek were ranked second and third nationally at the quarterback position in Yahoo! Sports’ Rivals.com’s 2011 recruiting class. Similarly, Scroggins was fifth at the position last year.
“We’re all just here just trying to get better,” Kessler said when asked about their past success last week. “Everyone was used to being the main guy and then they come in and learn from someone else and back them up. You can’t let it frustrate you.”
But Barkley, who was also a highly touted high school prospect in 2009, has taken notice of their poise and command after seven spring practices.
“They’re further along than when I was here,” said Barkley, who was a spring enrollee as a freshman, like Kessler and Wittek. “What they’ve learned so far and what they know in the film room, and what they’re saying in regards to protections and the playbook is pretty impressive. They’re playing their butts off.”