Heading into last fall, USC quarterback Cody Kessler was no doubt a middle-of-the-pack quarterback in the pass-happy Pac-12 Conference.
Now, not so much.
Second-year starter Kessler surprised people in 2014 when he threw for 3,826 yards, 39 touchdowns, and just five interceptions. Despite those numbers, Kessler didn't receive much attention, especially nationally. All the focus in the Pac-12 was on Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley.
USC head coach Steve Sarkisian believes this lack of recognition will play to his quarterback's advantage.
It is always an advantage to have a senior quarterback leading your team. Nobody ever has had the kind of season Cody had last year and went as unnoticed as he did, but that serves as great motivation for him this season. He has a chip on his shoulder and I expect him to have another outstanding season.
With both Mariota and Hundley out of the picture, Kessler has inherited the title of the conference's best quarterback. But if he wants to live up to that, he'll have to improve his performance in the biggest games. In three of USC's four losses last season, Kessler had his worst performances of the season, and it cost the Trojans big.
However, this year is a different story. Not only is Kessler heading into 2015 as the conference's best signal-caller, but the Trojans also have the best quarterback depth chart. When ranking the best quarterback depth charts in the nation, Bleacher Report ranked USC's squad second, only behind Ohio State's trio.
Let's take a look.
Starter: Cody Kessler (6-1, 215)
Kessler put up great numbers in 2014, and it was a large part of the reason the Trojans had some success. He improved tremendously in every aspect of the quarterback position, and his stats showed it.
The offensive line protecting him last season was young and inexperienced, and Kessler found himself under an influx of pressure in games against stout defenses, like UCLA. The youth and inexperience on the line won't be an issue this season as the Trojans return all five starters. Strong pass protection and the ability to run the ball up the middle will help further elevate Kessler's performance.
In the skill positions, the offense is young but deep. Wide receivers Nelson Agholor and George Farmer elected to forgo their final college seasons and start their professional careers in the NFL. However, freshman stud JuJu Smith is expected to immediately fill Agholor's role and dominate from the start. After JuJu the USC receiving corps is fairly inexperienced, but there's a lot of talent in that group for Kessler to help develop early on in the season.
The running game took a hit with the loss of Buck Allen to the NFL. Justin Davis will be expected to rise to the occasion, along with some help from the finally healthy Tre Madden and freshman Ronald Jones III. The strong offensive line should help these guys succeed, and Kessler's success relies heavily on that.
Kessler has gone through a roller coaster of a career here in Los Angeles. He played for four different coaches in a six-month period, played in games where the Trojans suited up less than 45 scholarship players, and excelled on the field with six true freshman starting on the offense. Adversity is nothing new to Kessler, and at a school like USC when expectations are high, that experience is an intangible asset that no other team in the Pac-12 has.
Backup: Max Browne (6-5, 220)
Max Browne came to Los Angeles in 2013 as the nation's top quarterback coming out of high school. However, because of Kessler's unexpected rise from a Band-Aid used to alleviate the loss of Barkley to a Heisman contender, Browne hasn't seen much playing time in games. In 2014, he saw action in six games, but only attempted seven passes, while completing three of them for 30 yards.
The Sammamish, Washington product has spent the last few seasons learning the offense, improving his arm, and developing chemistry with both the coaches and his teammates. In the 2015 spring game, Browne opened a lot of eyes by completing 24 of 37 passes for 251 yards and two scores.
His experience as a backup and his natural God-given talent will help him find success if he is needed to come in and replace Kessler, knock-on-wood. But more importantly for USC and Browne is the 2016 season. As of now, Browne is the favorite to be the starting quarterback. Early success will be crucial, as the Trojans open the 2016 schedule in Dallas against Nick Saban's Crimson Tide.
Others: Jalen Greene (6-1, 195); Ricky Town (6-3, 200)
Jalen Greene joined the Trojans in the spring of 2014 as an early enrollee, and redshirted the 2014 season. The lefty quarterback isn't the prototypical USC quarterback most people are used to seeing. Greene is a dual-threat option that can make plays with his feet when he needs to. However, he isn't the strongest passer on the team, and that's his biggest downfall.
Although Greene is currently listed as the third quarterback on the depth chart, true freshman Ricky Town, who joined the team this past spring as an early enrollee, may snatch that spot away this fall. In the spring game Town didn't get much of an opportunity to prove himself. He completed zero passes and threw an interception. But a part of that is just being an eighteen-year-old kid, and Town is sure to improve and develop over the next few seasons.
The Trojans have the best quarterback in the Pac-12, and one of the best in the entire nation. If he goes down, they have Max Browne, who on a lot of other teams would be a starter right now. After that, their quarterback future keeps looking brighter, as they have another four-star freshman coming in to join Town.