This time last year, the USC Trojans’ spring camp was marked by a three-way quarterback battle between then-incumbent starter Max Wittek, Cody Kessler and spring recruit Max Browne. This year, Wittek is gone and everyone moves up one: Incumbent starting quarterback Cody Kessler and Max Browne are officially competing for the starting job this spring, but if you hear it from anyone with eyes present at Howard Jones Field (including head coach Steve Sarkisian himself), it’s not much of a battle.
Kessler has been making serious strides at quarterback this spring and outpacing the younger Browne, who looks to have secured the backup role. Barring Browne miraculously mastering the playbook and reaching missile-throwing self-actualization in a matter of a week, it looks likely that Sarkisian will be going with Cody Kessler to be at the helm in this season’s opener against Fresno State.
Though Sarkisian preaches a run-first approach in his fast-paced offense, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see the Trojans throw in (no pun intended) a play action on second or third-and-short situations. At this point, the quarterback’s accuracy and arm strength come into play.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: Last year’s passing attack was underwhelming. It’s also perfectly appropriate to feel that the upcoming season’s prospects are a bit grim: It hurts to see Marcus Martin go, but Marqise Lee’s departure is a big blow to the Trojans’ air attack. Nelson Agholor is an exciting receiver with serious skills — but he’s not quite Marqise Lee or Robert Woods just yet.
At the helm of this passing attack last season was Kessler, who managed to throw enough check-downs, screens and intermediate routes last season to finish with a 65 percent completion percentage. But prior to the Las Vegas Bowl, Kessler had amassed a rather pedestrian 16 touchdowns and six interceptions through thirteen games. Following the departure of former interim head coach Ed Orgeron, however, the Trojans regrouped and did as Trojans do: They made it rain in Las Vegas. Kessler completed 22 of 30 passes en route to four touchdowns and a season-high 345 yards.
Sarkisian heavily recruited Browne when the former was head coach at Washington and the latter was setting school records at Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wa. The Sark undoubtedly got an earful from the Huskies’ fans when he failed to recruit a quarterback who had essentially grown up in UW’s backyard. Browne, the No. 2 pocket passer in the nation at the time, came to USC to play under former head coach Lane Kiffin, and Sarkisian just happened to meet up with him later.
What’s intriguing about Browne as a quarterback prospect is his professional-level height. Standing a full four inches taller than the 6-foot-1 (if even that) Kessler, Browne is reminiscent of another lanky USC quarterback who went on to have some success in the NFL: Matt Cassel. Browne’s greatest assets in high school were his instincts and anticipation.
On a brief perusal of Browne’s highlight tape from Skyline High School, it becomes immediately obvious that he has a distinct mental advantage over the hapless, outsized defenders. Three out of the first five plays on tape are situations in which the pocket breaks down and Browne finds a way to “make it work,” including a beautiful Tony Romo-esque strong-side rollout where he threads a needle between two defenders to a slanting receiver in the endzone. The trouble with translating this type of mental skillset to the college level is that Browne’s mind and body will have to adapt to the increased speed of the college game. Browne candidly stated that the speed of the game at the college level was his primary challenge as an incoming freshman.
It’s practically unimaginable that Browne will get the start against a Fresno State team that Kessler so gleefully eviscerated in last season’s Las Vegas Bowl game, but should the unthinkable happen to Kessler, Sarkisian might have quite the quarterback laying in the weeds, waiting his turn.
With five spring practices remaining, the battle for starting quarterback is considered essentially over. But with class of 2015 recruit Ricky Town committing to USC for the upcoming season, so is Browne’s window to compete for a starting spot. The Trojans are in good hands, for now. But don’t expect Browne to be the bridesmaid forever: the mental aspect of the college game might click at any second for a player like Browne, and that’s going to be a scary day for the rest of the Pac-12.
Euno Lee is a senior majoring in English literature. He is also the Managing Editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Euno What Time it is,” runs Wednesdays.