Near the end of spring practice in April, Trojans coach Lane Kiffin indicated redshirt freshman quarterback Jesse Scroggins had taken an early lead in the race to be Matt Barkley’s backup over the two early-enrollee signal-callers in camp: Cody Kessler and Max Wittek.
This past week, Kiffin said Kessler and Wittek had closed the gap through the first week of fall camp and the race was now even between the trio.
Monday, Kessler showed why.
The Bakersfield Centennial product performed impressively in the Trojans’ first scrimmage of fall camp at the Coliseum Monday, completing 16-of-18 passes for three touchdowns and one interception.
It wasn’t that he didn’t misfire on occasion -- he did, including on the interception, a telegraphed throw right into the hands of linebacker Dion Bailey. It was that when he did, he showed poise in rebounding quickly from the mistakes and moving on to the next throw with ease.
An example: after the pick, he didn’t miss a single pass the rest of the day, going 8-for-8.
“I thought Cody played really well, which probably speaks to what he is, which is a gamer,” Kiffin said after the scrimmage. “He’s not the guy that walks on the field in warmups and blows you away, and there’s been a lot of guys like that that have been great quarterbacks. He was a great high school quarterback and he showed it again today, with great numbers today.
“A lot of that has to do with his work ethic and the way he approaches the game. He’s very, very mature in his approach to being great.”
After the Bailey interception, the 18-year-old Kessler walked off the field and told the coaches he knew what he did wrong before they could even say anything to him. And he said he plans to never do it again once he re-watches it tomorrow in Heritage Hall with the coaches.
“There were some mistakes, like what Coach Kiffin said at the end,” he said. “A lot of freshmen made mistakes. Everyone got kinda excited and their intelligence of what they’re supposed to do in practice went down, even for me.
“But that’s why we have film. That’s why we’re gonna go in and look what we can improve on.”
In the huddle, Kessler looks significantly more in control than the two players he’s competing with. Wittek, while a natural quarterback talent, has struggled some with picking up the offense. Scroggins, the oldest of the bunch, has struggled with his on-field performance in fall camp this year.
“I’ve always been like that,” Kessler said. “I’ve never got too rattled or too nervous or anything to the point where I’m stressing out about the next play or anything. I try to just stay calm, relaxed and have fun.”
Attributes like those are necessary for a backup quarterback at the college level. His chances will normally come few and far between -- only when Barkley gets hurt, on this USC team -- but whoever the backup is must be ready at any point to come in and take over the duties, for one play, one game or one season.
For that reason, it seems like Kessler is close to taking a lead over Scroggins and Wittek for the No. 2 spot, but nothing has been officially announced by Kiffin just yet. For now, the three will continue to fight for that right in what Kessler described as a friendly competition.
“Me, Max and Jesse all know that we’re competing,” Kessler said Monday. “But, at the same time, we have fun in the film room and we all hang out. It’s not like we’re competing against each other and we don’t like each other and want the other guy to fail.
“We’re learning from each other.”