When handicapping Arizona State’s three-way quarterback competition last fall, most onlookers narrowed their gaze to strong-armed sophomore Mike Bercovici and fleet-footed freshman Michael Eubank. Redshirt junior Taylor Kelly only entered the discussion as the safe, yet altogether vanilla, fallback — a game manager who could split the difference between the other two quarterbacks’ strengths.
Coming off of an epic late-season collapse in which they lost their final five games of 2011 after beginning 6-2, the Sun Devils might have opted to make a splash by starting the “toolsiest” specimen at quarterback, and few would have blamed them. But new head coach Todd Graham recognized that swift cone-drill times and countless 225-pound bench press repetitions don’t necessarily translate into regular season victories.
Throughout 2012 fall camp, Kelly proved to be a study in passer efficiency, giving Graham no other choice but to give him the starting nod, much to the dismay of the underwhelmed Arizona State fan base.
Twenty-nine touchdowns and a 67.1 completion percentage later, Kelly now rightly belongs in the thick of the discussion about the No. 2 quarterback in the Pac-12 behind University of Oregon sensation Marcus Mariota.
In a weird way, this Arizona State retrospective draws a striking parallel to USC’s current three-way quarterback competition, in which the best option — sophomore Cody Kessler — is also, frankly, the least sexy.
It’s unusual that a player can complete 15 of 22 passes for 242 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions while not wowing you with any particular sequence. But that’s exactly what Kessler did in Saturday’s spring game, even despite his 70-yard touchdown strike to junior wide receiver Marqise Lee on his very first throw, which hit the reigning Biletnikoff winner perfectly in stride 40 yards downfield.
For some unexplainable reason, until looking at Kessler’s statistics after the scrimmage, his performance still seemed almost humdrum.
It doesn’t require a wealth of scouting experience to discern Kessler’s physical limitations. At 6-foot-1, his height is below average for the position. He’s mobile, but by no means a dual threat. His release is a touch long and jerky. And his arm strength pales in comparison to his two competitors, fellow sophomore Max Wittek and freshman Max Browne.
Though Wittek’s star lost some luster after his putrid performance in the Sun Bowl, his deep-ball prowess conjures up dreams of Lee and sophomore wide receiver Nelson Agholor racing down sidelines several times per game for long gains. Wittek also owns a better pedigree than his fellow 2011 class signee, as he succeeded Matt Barkley at Mater Dei and was ranked as the No. 3 quarterback recruit in the nation according to ESPN, whereas Kessler was rated, by spoiled USC standards, a pedestrian 29th.
And according to most scouting services, Browne entered USC as the No. 1 quarterback in the class of 2013. To accompany his picture-perfect delivery, his arm strength compares favorably with Wittek’s. If any one of these players projects as a future mainstay in the NFL, it’s this precocious talent from Sammamish, Wash.
But Saturday’s spring game also magnified both quarterbacks’ unmistakable — and unacceptable — warts. Wittek still struggles with his decision-making and accuracy, as he was intercepted twice by senior safety Demetrius Wright. The first interception came on an underthrown heave into double coverage that was intended for Agholor, and the second occurred after he threw another pass into tight coverage that deflected off of Lee’s shoulder pad. Neither throw should have been made in the first place.
Browne’s shortcomings mostly stem from inexperience. Understandably lacking complete fluency in the playbook at this point, he stares down receivers all too often and struggles to create space for himself in the pocket when his initial foothold breaks down; this caused him to suffer several sacks on the day.
For what it’s worth, however, he appears light-years ahead of where Wittek and Kessler were in their first spring practices.
In many ways, Kessler is USC’s Taylor Kelly. The Bakersfield native features pinpoint accuracy, savvy escapability in the pocket and old-fashioned moxie. Unfazed by the free-roaming, predatory senior defensive end Morgan Breslin constantly bearing down on him, two dropped passes by receivers and unfavorable passing downs after failed runs, Kessler simply made every necessary play. Named the offense’s team captain before the game, Kessler conducted himself as the man in charge even though he began the first series of the scrimmage on the bench.
We can’t forget that quarterbacks, in particular, often either surpass or fall short of the sum of their parts — not everything can be neatly measured with a stopwatch or yardstick. Naming Kessler as the starting quarterback might ultimately come as a letdown for a disgruntled USC fan base that wants thrilling, high-octane entertainment (see: Andy Enfield’s Dunk City).
But take it from a one-time Kessler skeptic: He can lead a Trojan turnaround. He proved it at the Coliseum this weekend, and he’ll do it again come fall.
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