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USC's Max Wittek is well-armed for his shot on big stage

Wittek will make his first collegiate start Saturday against top-ranked Notre Dame. The redshirt freshman, who is replacing an injured Matt Barkley, has a strong arm and those who know him say he'll be ready for the challenge.

November 19, 2012|By Gary Klein
  • USC quarterback Max Wittek will make his first start on Saturday against the No. 1 team in the nation.
USC quarterback Max Wittek will make his first start on Saturday against… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )

Max Wittek is ready for the moment. That's what those closest to USC's backup quarterback say as Wittek prepares for the biggest game of his life.

Wittek, a redshirt freshman, will start in place of injured Matt Barkley against top-ranked Notre Dame on Saturday at the Coliseum.

It's an opportunity Wittek has prepared for since he moved from Connecticut to Orange County to play at Santa Ana Mater Dei High, the same school that sent Barkley and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart to USC.

"He's so competitive and also very quietly confident," Mater Dei Coach Bruce Rollinson said Monday. "I see him throwing caution to the wind and having a ball out there."

Wittek, 19, was named the Trojans' No. 2 quarterback after a training camp competition with fellow redshirt freshman Cody Kessler, who will be the backup against the Fighting Irish.

Wittek has played in six games, including the closing minutes of last week's 38-28 loss to UCLA, when Barkley suffered a shoulder sprain while being sacked. Wittek completed all three of his passes for 40 yards against the Bruins and is eight for nine for 95 yards and a touchdown this season.

Now comes Notre Dame, which is 11-0 and vying for a spot in the Bowl Championship Series title game.

"We expect him to step right in and play at a championship level," said Coach Lane Kiffin, who anticipates that Barkley will play in USC's bowl game.

Wittek was not available to reporters on Monday. He is 6 feet 4 and is listed on USC's roster at 235 pounds, but Wittek said during training camp that he had bulked up to 245 and had not lost any quickness.

"What he brings to the table that some other USC quarterbacks have not is a real sense of athleticism," said Steve Clarkson, a Southern California-based private quarterbacks coach who has tutored Leinart, Barkley and Wittek. "In a lot of ways, he has [UCLA quarterback] Brett Hundley capability in his foot dynamics."

Wittek, described by Kiffin as a "prototype NFL quarterback," is known for his arm, which appears stronger than Barkley's and reminds some of Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer.

"One thing's for sure," Rollinson said. "He should tell [receivers] Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, 'If you're going deep, go real deep, because I'll get it there.' God knows he can throw it a country mile."

Wittek, after attending a camp in Chicago run by Clarkson, started training seriously to become a quarterback as an eighth-grader. He thereafter worked privately with Clarkson in Connecticut and California as many as three times a month, honing mechanics and fundamentals and studying film. "As I look back on that, it was kind of a little bit advanced for such a young age," Wittek said last year. "I just took to it."

Clarkson advised Wittek's family to consider a move after surveying the level of competition in Connecticut and finding it wanting. "To come out west," Clarkson said, "was a no-brainer."

At Mater Dei, Wittek succeeded Barkley as the starter in 2009. As a senior in 2010, he passed for 24 touchdowns, with 15 interceptions, and also rushed for six touchdowns.

"They're going to come after him — let's face it," Rollinson said of Notre Dame's highly ranked defense. "But you have a boy who weighs 240 that can run. That's the one thing that's different — if he has to get out of the pocket he can probably keep it alive a little longer than Barkley."

Wittek's father, Kurt, said his son was well-prepared for the moment, which comes with a twist to the intersectional rivalry — Kurt Wittek is a business partner of former Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana.

"In his mind, I think he always thought it was going to happen at some point," Kurt Wittek said, "and I think he's really looking forward to answering the bell."

That's what Scott Tinsley did for USC in 1980 when a No. 2-ranked Notre Dame team came to the Coliseum. The Fighting Irish were 9-0-1 and needed a victory to earn a Sugar Bowl matchup against top-ranked Georgia for a chance to win the national title.

Tinsley had started the previous game against UCLA in place of injured starter Gordon Adams. Against the Irish, he said he "managed the game" as the Trojans won, 20-3.

Two years ago, with Barkley sidelined because of an ankle injury, Mitch Mustain prepared for the only start of his Trojans career.

Mustain was a fifth-year senior who had started and won eight games as a freshman at Arkansas in 2006. After transferring to USC and waiting four years, he finally got his shot — and the Trojans lost to Notre Dame, 20-16.

Mustain said Wittek would be fine as soon as the game starts.

He recalled Wittek's visits to workouts and meetings when the future Trojans quarterback was still in high school.

"He's very steady," Mustain said. "He has the head for it, he's prepared for it and he's got the tools."

Lee a Biletnikoff finalist

USC's Marqise Lee was announced as one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award, presented to the nation's top receiver. Lee has a nation-leading 107 receptions, four shy of the USC record set last season by Robert Woods, and 14 touchdowns. West Virginia's Stedman Bailey (88 receptions, 20 touchdowns) and Baylor's Terrance Williams (82 receptions, 11 touchdowns) are the other finalists. The winner will be announced Dec. 6.

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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