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In Kessler, Goff, the reputation of the Pac-12 QB is in good hands

Jared Goff and Cody Kessler rank among the top QBs in the Pac-12. USA TODAY Sports

BURBANK, Calif. -- There was a time when a new quarterback would sit. Redshirt. Hold a clipboard. Carry the older guy’s pads. Keep his mouth shut in the film room. Watch. Learn.

And then, if he was worth his salt, maybe he’d get a shot after a couple of seasons.

But as quarterbacks became more specialized in the past couple of decades with the growth of “QB gurus,” passing camps and, yes, the rise of the spread offense, the line between the old-school approach and simply being thrown into the proverbial fire has blurred to the point of nonexistence.

For example, take the top two projected quarterbacks in the Pac-12 and their career arcs heading into the 2015 season. USC’s Cody Kessler took what most would consider the “traditional” route to becoming the top Trojans QB. He sat behind Matt Barkley, then twice won quarterback competitions -- one against Max Wittek, and again to prove himself to a new coaching staff -- before finally getting his opportunity. Now he’s one of the most touted quarterbacks in the nation and gaining strong Heisman Trophy buzz.

Cal’s Jared Goff took a more direct route -- as in, get out there, rookie, and good luck against No. 22 Northwestern, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 2 Oregon in your first four games of 2013. To be fair, Goff did have to beat out Zach Kline when he got to campus. But Goff credits showing up in January 2013 and participating in spring ball as a huge reason why he was named a true freshman starter.

“There is not a traditional route for anything anymore,” Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. “For coaching, for quarterbacks, for any of it. It's all about the end game, getting to a particular place, and it really doesn't matter how you get there.”

And the end game has brought the two quarterbacks to the forefront of the Pac-12 spotlight, where quarterback play is always expected to be the best in college football, and usually is.

“Year in and year out, this is the best conference for quarterbacks,” Goff said. “There were really good quarterbacks last year and this year I’m honored to be towards the top of that. It’s kind of weird that I’m a veteran now. . . . I think every quarterback in the Pac-12 tends to be talented. You have to be and you have to be able to lead your team to a lot of points because that’s the way this conference goes.”

Their 2014 numbers are comparable -- and outstanding. Kessler had 39 touchdown passes and five interceptions. Goff went 35 TDs and seven INTs. Goff had the edge in yards (3,973 to Kessler's 3,826), while Kessler had the stronger completion percentage (69.7 to Goff's 62.1). As far as leading their teams to points, the Bears were second in the league last season, averaging 38.2 points per game. USC was fourth with 35.8.

Most are projecting Goff as a first-round draft pick. Scouts are taking more of a wait-and-see approach with Kessler because they want to see how he reacts to increased scrutiny and how he does against stiffer competition.

That’s probably the biggest knock on Kessler. His touchdown-to-interception ratio was impressive last season. But 33 of his touchdowns came against unranked teams. Against ranked teams, he has just four touchdowns to three interceptions. He’s aware of the criticism. And he dismisses it just as quickly.

“People can say whatever they want,” Kessler said. “Negative, positive, whatever it is, up and downs, I could care less. I could care less what they say outside or what the media says. This is my team. Whatever happens with my team, whatever my team thinks, however they think I can improve to win us games, that’s all I care about. That and the guys in the locker room.”

The hype on Goff has increased as well. When asked about hearing his name in the Heisman race and a projected NFL career, his reaction was professional: flattered, and thanks. What’s next?

“I feel so much more confident coming into this season than last year, for good reasons,” Goff said. “I’ve gotten bigger, stronger, the team is a lot older and more experienced.

“I think [freshman and sophomore year] I was confident, but I wasn’t as confident as I could be because I didn’t go through it. You have to go through those two years and now, at this point, I’ve played 24 games and I’m confident. That’s the best way to describe it.”

The duo takes the torch from Heisman winner Marcus Mariota and the electric Brett Hundley. And despite the different paths of their career arcs, both have the talent and weapons around them to produce impressive seasons.

“Jared has been really successful, even as a true freshman,” Kessler said. “I had growing pains as a true freshman and sophomore. Once you get comfortable, once you realize what type of player you are and what you bring to the game, then you can play to your strengths and work on your weaknesses. That’s something I’ve done and it works. You just have to figure out what works for you.”