Cody Kessler has spent most of his USC career in the shadows. The redshirt junior quarterback arrived on campus in the midst of Matt Barkley’s record-breaking run at the helm of the Trojan offense. Upon Barkley’s graduation, few predicted Kessler would take over the starting position, favoring his bigger, stronger classmate Max Wittek.
Even now, a year removed from running away with the quarterback job during the Trojans’ tumultuous 2013 campaign and winning it once more in spring camp, Kessler remains overlooked. He is routinely ranked as the Pac-12’s fifth or sixth-best signal-caller going into this season, behind the electrifying Marcus Mariota of Oregon, UCLA’s Heisman candidate Brett Hundley and veterans Kevin Hogan of Stanford, Taylor Kelly of Arizona and Sean Mannion of Oregon State. Hundley has dominated the local headlines of late, while the focus of USC’s media coverage remains on new head coach Steve Sarkisian. For many athletes, especially at a position as ego-driven as quarterback, this could become a problem; however, USC fans can rest assured that Kessler is no stranger to adversity.
2011 was an outstanding year for USC football. The Barkley-led Trojans, barred from postseason play due to NCAA sanctions, capped a 10-win season with a 50-0 drubbing of UCLA at the Coliseum. Behind the scenes, things were just as exciting. As Barkley’s decision to remain for his senior season or leave for the NFL loomed, the battle for the backup quarterback job — Barkley’s presumed successor — raged on.
The leader in the clubhouse for much of the fall was a surprise candidate, dual-threat redshirt freshman Jesse Scroggins. Behind him was Wittek, who had enrolled the previous spring after graduating from high school a semester early. Wittek had the size — 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds at 18 years old — and the pedigree — he was considered the third-best high school quarterback prospect in the country by ESPN — to rightfully claim Barkley’s throne. The pair had even went to the same high school, Mater Dei of Santa Ana, California — also the alma mater of former USC gunslinger Matt Leinart. Fourth on the depth chart was Kessler, a short, stocky true freshman out of Bakersfield, California, known for an innate elusiveness in the pocket — but not much else.
As the season progressed, Scroggins fell to injury and Kessler usurped Wittek for the backup job. Still, neither Kessler nor Wittek received any playing time, and both eventually kept their redshirts, leaving the quarterback competition wide open.
By no means was Kessler lightly recruited. He enrolled at USC in the spring of 2011 with an impressive list of offers, including one from head coach Nick Saban at Alabama. But the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder was only a three-star recruit according to ESPN, and was ranked well outside their list of the top 150 high school prospects. He had flaws, to be sure, and his lack of height and arm strength were only more obvious when compared to Wittek’s pure physicality. But just as a long list of college coaches saw during his days at Centennial High School in Bakersfield, Kessler’s value lies outside traditional measurables.
The close of the 2011 season saw good news and bad news for Kessler. Scroggins decided to transfer, leaving Wittek as Kessler’s only competition. Unfortunately, that competition would once again be for the backup job, as Barkley had decided to stay for his senior year. Throughout the spring and into the fall, the two redshirt freshman battled, with Wittek eventually winning out. When Barkley fell to injury midway through a late-season loss to UCLA, Wittek was thrust into action. Instead of looking like the heir apparent USC fans hoped he was, however, Wittek struggled in the spotlight. His arm strength and physical tools were obvious, especially in a close loss to Notre Dame, but he struggled on short and intermediate throws, often looking lost in then-head coach Lane Kiffin’s offense.
Going into 2013, Wittek’s difficulties opened the door for the resilient Kessler to claim the job he had been passed over for the year before. Both quarterbacks saw playing time early in the season, as Kiffin’s eventual firing neared. Neither player amazed, and conservative play-calling handcuffed the entire offense. Still, it became clear that Wittek had holes in his game at least as large as Kessler’s. Worse yet, concerns about Wittek regarding his accuracy and mobility had seemed to worsen from the previous year. Eventually, citing ball control and consistency, Kiffin tapped Kessler for the starting role. The rest is history — USC finished with 10 wins under three different head coaches, and, overshadowed by a dominant defense and resurgent running game, the team’s quarterback completed 65 percent of his passes for nearly 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns. Wittek planned to transfer, but was unable to after failing to graduate on time last spring. Kessler solidified his place as USC’s starter in spring camp, outshining redshirt freshman Max Browne and true freshman Jalen Greene.
For even the most experienced college football experts and hardcore USC fans, Kessler’s rapid improvement during the 2013 season was a great surprise. For his teammates, however, it was long overdue.
“He puts in a lot more work than a lot of guys,” said All-American defensive end Leonard Williams. “That just shows his character. He’s all in for it on the team and he’s ready to put his heart out there for it.”
The opinion that Kessler’s most important skills are intangible is one shared by many around the USC program. Sarkisian, who recruited Kessler while the head coach at Washington, saw something special in the high schooler. “He was ultra-competitive,” Sarkisian said. “He won a lot of games and I think that shows in his play. He has great leadership.”
Kessler and the Trojans’ first test of the 2014 campaign will come in just the second week of the season — a road tilt at Stanford. This type of game could rattle any player; even four-year starter Matt Barkley lost to the Cardinal on the road two seasons ago. Still, betting against Kessler — who threw for 288 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in a home upset of No. 5 Stanford last year — never seems to be a good idea. Though it can be difficult to put into words exactly what Kessler brings to the table, Williams succinctly explained his confidence in the Pac-12’s sixth-ranked quarterback.
“I wouldn’t want any other quarterback on my team.”