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Understudy QBs Max Wittek, Cody Kessler await turn on USC stage

Freshman quarterbacks Wittek, Kessler came to USC early to start their careers, though for now they know they're vying only to back up Matt Barkley. That doesn't make the competition any less intense.

August 19, 2011|By Gary Klein
  • Cody Kessler, left, and Max Wittek were the first quarterbacks to enroll early at USC during the same year. Now the race is on to see which of them will become starter Matt Barkley's backup.
Cody Kessler, left, and Max Wittek were the first quarterbacks to enroll… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

Max Wittek and Cody Kessler knew what they were getting into when they graduated early from high school last year so they could begin their USC careers.

It gave them an opportunity to show their skills and maturity during spring practice. And after two weeks of training camp, the freshmen are considered to be running even in a competition to become the Trojans' starting quarterback.

In 2012 or '13.

Matt Barkley is expected to be under center Sept. 3 when USC opens against Minnesota at the Coliseum.

But Barkley, a junior in his third season as the starter, could be headed to the NFL by December. Or, he might come back for one last run at a Bowl Championship Series bowl game and, perhaps, a Heisman Trophy.

No matter which, the race to become his backup and eventual successor is on.

Six years after John David Booty became the first quarterback to enroll early at USC, Barkley did the same.

Wittek and Kessler were the first do it in the same year.

"Everyone was asking, 'Oh, is it going to be weird? Is it going to be drama?'" Kessler said as he walked shoulder to shoulder with Wittek after practice this week.

"It's not a hostile competition," Wittek said.

The freshmen offer a contrast in styles.

Standing 6 feet 4 with a frame that suggests he will grow taller, Wittek looks like a classic passer, his elbow up and the ball held near his ear while dropping back.

During spring workouts, the former Santa Ana Mater Dei High quarterback seemed hesitant at times directing older teammates and throwing deep passes. But during training camp, he has displayed a deeper understanding of the playbook and has been more in command. He also has thrown long more than any other quarterback during scrimmages.

After playing mainly out of the shotgun formation at Bakersfield Centennial High, the 6-1, 210-pound Kessler faced a greater adjustment. But he's proven to be a quick study, returning from summer workouts with a shorter, quicker throwing motion and improved speed in his drops.

During a poised 16-for-18 passing performance in the Trojans' first scrimmage, he also displayed mobility and a flair for improvising.

Redshirt freshman Jesse Scroggins was ahead of Wittek and Kessler at the end of spring practice, but the first-year players moved onto the fast track last week after Scroggins had thumb surgery, which is expected to keep him sidelined for weeks. In his absence, Wittek and Kessler are amassing practice repetitions that have enabled them to close the experience gap.

Scroggins' injury — which precipitated his being replaced on the 105-player training camp roster until Monday — also has created intrigue. In each of the last two seasons, Barkley was sidelined for at least one game because of injuries. So the Trojans need a backup capable of starting.

Which freshman might play? Which might redshirt?

"Thank goodness both came when they did at midterm," quarterbacks coach Clay Helton said. "I could not imagine where we would be if they had not."

Wittek and Kessler, who both turned 18 in the last four months, say they have benefited from studying Barkley — on the field, in the film room and beyond.

It's a reunion of sorts for Wittek, who was a sophomore at Mater Dei when Barkley was a senior.

"I figured if I can learn from him the same way I did [in high school], then things will turn out great," Wittek said.

Barkley is now the sage veteran imparting advice. Less than three years ago, he arrived at USC to compete with veterans Aaron Corp and Mitch Mustain for the chance to succeed Mark Sanchez. He said Wittek and Kessler already know the "ins and outs" of the offense better than he did at the same stage.

"I never really had someone to kind of look up to and be mentored by," Barkley said. "It was always competition, so Corp and Mitch weren't really helping me out in a sense."

Wittek and Kessler acknowledge that they sometimes can't help looking ahead.

At some point, they will be separated on the depth chart. One could ascend to become the backup and, eventually, the starter.

"Of course we think about it," Kessler said. "There's going to have to be a decision. But this could probably go on for four years."

Not likely. Not at USC.

Since 2001, the quarterback anointed as the starter has played every game unless injured.

Carson Palmer started in 2001 and 2002 before Matt Leinart held the position for three seasons. Booty took over in 2006 and Sanchez in 2008 before leaving after one season as the starter, opening the door for Barkley.

The newcomers are enjoying pushing each other.

"If he sees me make a mistake," Wittek said, "he's not going to go out and make the same one."

Likewise, Kessler said.

"We're just trying to get better," he said.

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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