USC reserve quarterbacks Max Wittek, left, and Jesse Scroggins wait for… (Kirby Lee / US Presswire )
At USC, the question becomes moot if quarterback Matt Barkley returns to compete for the Bowl Championship Series title and the Heisman Trophy.
While Barkley is deciding whether to turn pro a year early, potential successors Jesse Scroggins, Cody Kessler and Max Wittek are on hold.
"If going is the best thing for him," Kessler said, "that's great."
"If he does come back," Wittek noted, "that's another learning opportunity for all of us."
"Either way," Scroggins said, "we're all going to be fine."
That's how Coach Lane Kiffin sees it.
"They're not going to all of sudden lift more or throw harder," he said. "They're working extremely hard regardless of the situation. Whatever happens, happens. We've been through this before here."
Barkley must decide by mid-January if he'll make himself available for the NFL draft.
Matt Leinart faced the same decision after winning the Heisman in 2004. He opted to return for his senior season, forcing John David Booty to wait.
Four years later, it was Mark Sanchez's turn. He bolted for the NFL, opening the door for Barkley.
Now Scroggins, who will be a redshirt sophomore, and the two redshirt freshmen, Kessler and Wittek, must wait to find out if they will be competing for a starting role in spring practice or caddying again for Barkley.
"They're a young group of guys who have been maturing and are right on the cusp, I think, of really taking hold of the reins," Barkley said.
Barkley holds the key to their immediate future. He has watched all of them grow — in the film room and on the field.
"I think Cody has the best leadership skills right now," Barkley said. "Max probably has the best intangibles right now, and I think Jesse has probably the strongest arm."
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Scroggins, a former Lakewood High star, opened training camp as the No. 2 quarterback but suffered a thumb injury during a scrimmage. He was sidelined for more than a month after surgery.
Scroggins' absence allowed the freshmen to take more snaps, enabling them to close the gap enjoyed by Scroggins from having been in the program in 2010.
Scroggins returned in October and eventually regained the form that helped him pass for 35 touchdowns during his final high school season in 2009.
"Jesse has great arm strength, a really quick release and has made some really amazing throws," Kiffin said. "The system is just taking a little bit of time with him, like it would anybody coming from a shotgun system and what he did in high school."
Scroggins played the final snap of USC's victory over Washington on Nov. 12. It wasn't much, but Scroggins considered it something to build on.
"I'm not a pup anymore," he said. "It's time for me to be that guy, that mature guy that everyone trusts and everybody can depend on."
The 6-1, 210-pound Kessler performed well during training-camp scrimmages and was elevated to No. 2 on the depth chart when Scroggins was sidelined.
The former Bakersfield Centennial High star showed playmaking ability and moxie reminiscent of Sanchez.
"Cody really came in on fire," Kiffin said. "He was picking everything up and really was the most comfortable maybe of anybody that I've been around right away in the huddle calling plays and not having to ask for them again."
Kessler said he would be ready to start if Barkley left, but described that possibility as bittersweet.
"He's a great guy you want around to learn from," Kessler said. "At the same time, you want this opportunity."
Like Barkley and Leinart, Wittek came to USC from Santa Ana Mater Dei High.
At 6-4, 225 pounds and growing, he's in the mold of a young Carson Palmer — "big and strong-armed," Kiffin said — and continues to mature physically.
Wittek said all of the quarterbacks would follow the instruction given each week from quarterbacks coach Clay Helton — prepare as if they were going to start.
"We're all in the same meeting room, all getting the same teaching tools," Wittek said. "We just have to go out there and compete."
Barkley declined to pick a front-runner — "All those guys have their strengths" — but said that winning the trust of coaches and teammates and controlling the huddle would be key whenever the succession takes place.
"I'm going to keep pounding on them because that's, I think, what sets you apart, level to level," he said. "We can all throw the football, but those guys need to be able to really take the reins and take control of the team."