For the majority of the USC football team, the 2015 college football season ended on Dec. 30, 2015, with the Trojans 23-21 loss to the Wisconsin Badgers in the 2015 National Funding Holiday Bowl.
For seniors Cody Kessler and Soma Vainuku, however, their seasons ended with their participation in the 2016 Reese’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, on Saturday.
The Senior Bowl, established in 1950, was originally played in Jacksonville, Florida before being moved to its current location at Ladd Peebles Stadium in Alabama.
With the college football national championship happening weeks prior and the Super Bowl always happening a week later, the annual contest allows college football’s best senior players to showcase their talents.
The two teams, the North and the South, are coached by a chosen NFL coaching staff and feature athletes at the top of their athletic prowess.
Before the game on Saturday, Kessler illustrated in an interview with the Los Angeles Times the expectations involved in not only the Senior Bowl’s practices, but also the game itself.
“They want to see how you can practice in an NFL practice, in an NFL system and then, obviously, how you play when you get guys out there,” Kessler said. “It’s been a really good three days, and now you get to go out there and play against another team and get live reps.”
Kessler and Vainuku aren’t the only Trojans to have been awarded the honor of Senior Bowl participants. In fact, 83 Trojans have graced the field of the Senior Bowl, including former Trojan linebackers Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga, running back Frank Gifford and defensive back Shareece Wright.
Past Trojan receiver and current NFL Hall of Fame member Lynn Swann was elected by the fans to the All-Time Senior Bowl Team.
In terms of quarterbacks, Kessler joins USC alums Kyle Wachholtz, Carson Palmer and John David Booty, while Vainuku is the first Trojan to attend the Senior Bowl as a designated fullback.
In this year’s battle for Senior Bowl supremacy, the North featured playmakers such as Ohio State wide receiver Braxton Miller, Arizona State running back D.J. Foster and Notre Dame defensive lineman Sheldon Day, while the South’s roster was highlighted by Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman and Alabama quarterback Jake Coker.
Kessler was among four quarterbacks and 12 Pac-12 players chosen to represent the North team, while Vainuku was the North’s lone fullback.
Kessler also stated how he has adjusted to new professional-level coaching and his approach to improvement.
“I got a lot of great pointers,” Kessler said. “It’s been a really cool week to be able to hear their terminology and how they explain things. And then you watch film the way they watch and they explain everything. It has been great for me. I’m trying to take everything in.”
In the contest, Kessler completed just four of his 10 pass attempts for 45 yards, ranking third on the squad in total yardage behind Louisiana Tech’s Jeff Driskel and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz, out of the FCS. Fellow Pac-12 QB Kevin Hogan went three of four for just 41 yards, while rushing for an eight-yard gain.
Vainuku, on the other hand, failed to reach the stats sheet as he was utilized for primarily blocking purposes.
Although the North lost the affair 27-16, Kessler led a 15-play, 80-yard drive which resulted in one of his overall 10 rushing yards going for a touchdown.
The game’s MVP Honors were awarded to Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott for his 13 yards rushing, 61 yards and one touchdown on 7-of-10 passing.
Other names that impressed were Ohio State tight end Nick Vannett and Southeastern Missouri State wide receiver Paul McRoberts, who caught three passes for 58 yards and four passes for 46 yards and a touchdown, respectively.
Looking at Vainuku and Kessler’s draft prospects, both are certainly in good position. The position of the selections, however, will become clearer as pre-combine workouts take place.
In response to scouts and potential NFL teams, Vainuku reaffirmed his commitment to working hard and proving teams wrong.
“I’m willing to get in there and work my butt off to show them that if they draft me,” Vainuku said. “Their number is not wasted.”
Vainuku sits as the fifth-best fullback on CBS Sports, projected to be selected in the seventh round overall behind fullbacks such as Kansas State’s Glenn Gronkowski and Wisconsin’s Derek Watt, brothers of NFL stars Rob Gronkowski and J.J. Watt, respectively.
Meanwhile, Cody Kessler currently ranks as the 12th-best quarterback on the board, falling to the sixth or seventh rounds in the draft.
The futures of the former Trojans are bright, however, with three months of preparation and examinations left until the 2016 NFL Draft in Chicago, Illinois.