The only real position battle

Cody Kessler, left, and Max Wittek remain in a battle to backup starting quarterback Matt Barkley. Cal Sport Media/AP Images

LOS ANGELES -- USC entered into fall camp with a few key spots up for grabs: the backup quarterback, the starting running back, the No. 3 receiver, one starting defensive end and the second starting corner.

Slowly but surely, most of those have been decided, mostly by injuries but also in some cases because of actual play. Curtis McNeal will be USC's starting running back against Hawaii, because he has been too good not to be. J.R. Tavai will be one of the Trojans' two primary ends, as long as he's healthy. Anthony Brown will be the second corner to Nickell Robey, unless Torin Harris gets healthy over the next week or Isiah Wiley somehow becomes eligible shortly.

That leaves two: the third receiver, where it seems as if USC will mix and match with De'Von Flournoy, Nelson Agholor and George Farmer, and the backup quarterback, which is still, according to coach Lane Kiffin, totally tied up between Cody Kessler and Max Wittek.

And, if Kiffin has his way, it might stay tied up for the entire season. He said this week he won't name a backup unless the situation presents itself, which, translated from coach-speak, means he probably won't name a backup at all.

"There’s never been a date on that, and there won’t be," Kiffin said. "It’ll be more if there’s some separation.

"And if there’s not, we’ll just keep going.”

Sure, that makes sense, but it also makes for a departure from Kiffin's previous public comments on the subject. Twelve days ago, Kiffin said he couldn't envision a situation in which he didn't have a clear-cut backup.

“I would foresee having a No. 2," Kiffin said on the third day of camp. "I wouldn’t know how to do it the other way with the reps, because there’s just not many reps to go around for backups once you get to the season.

"I would sure think we’d have a No. 2.”

At the time, those words were surprising. The expectation has always been that Kiffin would refrain from naming a backup so as to keep both players in the fold for as long as possible.

That seems to again be the plan, based on Kiffin's latest comments on the battle from Tuesday.

“We’re not in the season, so we haven’t named one yet,” Kiffin said then. “We would like to when we get into the season.

"But if we haven’t, it’s not the end of the world because I think both of them have a really good grasp of our offense. I could see some areas where both would play.”

Reading between the lines, that would seem to indicate Kessler will be Barkley's No. 2, as he was last year, coming in during fourth quarters of blowouts or if Barkley needed a snap off to get his hand taped.

It would also seem to indicate that Wittek will be Barkley's long-term backup, if something serious were to happen to the Trojans' signal-caller. If there's a clear difference between the second-year players, it lies in those statuses.

Kessler's the safer, better manager. Wittek's the riskier, better thrower. And both players play to those roles pretty much on a daily basis.

Now, which one does USC want?