Of all the positional battles (running back, cornerbacks, linebackers, etc.) playing out this spring, there is perhaps none more interesting than the one between Max Browne and Cody Kessler—the battle for starting quarterback.
While both are talented players still learning and developing, only one will be leading the team through the tunnel and out onto the shining green turf of the Coliseum before you, me, and the rest of Troy, a sea of cardinal and gold.
So who will it be? Well for starters, lets take a look at what each brings to the table.
The top recruit out of Washington Skyline High School, when Browne committed to USC, Trojan fans far and wide gave a collective cheer and sigh of relief. Thank God, our program is saved. While Browne hasn’t progressed as quickly as hoped, there’s still a lot to get excited for when looking at the sophomore QB. His high school stats are drool-worthy (8,216 yards, 95 TD's, and only 20 interceptions) and his NFL size, elite decision-making, and his control in the pocket are skills that any player would kill to have.
Last season, not only did Browne fail to garner significant minutes, but the offensive system he was working in was vastly different from the one he’d been familiar with during his high school years. Playing behind a center was new for Browne and it showed; the few occasions he saw action, he looked lost, uncomfortable. This year, however, in Coach Steve Sarkisian's offense, Browne should see a lot more action in the shotgun, where in the past, he's excelled most at.
In a season of zero expectations, Kessler started off the first game against Hawaii timid and tense—just like you’d expect a kid who’d only played quarterback in two games the previous season, passing for a grand total of nine yards. However, as the year progressed, we saw Kessler become increasingly confidence, his footwork and composure improving exponentially, and he finished the year with 2,968 yards and 20 TD’s on a 65.4% completion rate.
Six practices in, Kessler has been playing been playing with an air of self-assurance, a swagger—like he's a starter. Watching him hustle and sweat under that blazing, Californian sun on the practice field, you can tell that he not only wants another chance to be the leader of the Trojan's offense, but that he believes that he's the right man for the job. Sarkisian has even gone as far to say that he has a slight lead over Browne for the coveted starting spot. During practice, he’s adapted well to the no-huddle offense that Sarkisian used in Washington and while Kessler isn’t as athletic as Keith Price, he has more mobility and quickness than USC quarterbacks of the past.
Kessler may not have the raw talent and upside that Browne has, but he does hold an advantage over Browne that cannot be caught up on—experience. Kessler has a rapport with his fellow teammates and an understanding of what it's like to play in high-stakes college ball that Browne will not be able to achieve, no matter how hard he works this offseason. Kessler's accuracy and arm strength are both appealing and if he's able to improve his vision and anticipation, the position will be his.
In comparing the two players, it appears that the main difference between them stems not from build, ability, or personhood, but experience. While Kessler currently has the advantage over Browne, there's a lot of time left before next season (unfortunately).
There's talk that positional battles—particularly ones for quarterback, the general of the team—are bad for morale and chemistry. Maybe, for some schools that's true, and maybe I'm optimistic, maybe I love USC a little too much, but I believe that for members of the USC football team, these types of fights are welcomed.
Because when you sign on to be a member of the Trojan family, there's an unspoken agreement that it's not just for yourself. That in giving yourself to this program, you get that there's a rich history of success and pride that you're following and that no matter how good you might be, above all, the goal is to win.
So whoever is sitting on the bench come season, Browne or Kessler, I have no doubts that they'll be, if not happy, accepting of where they are—for the good of the team.