The day before “the day before.”
After a closed morning practice session, the Trojans are now just one walkthrough away from the first game of the 2015 USC football season. Arkansas State comes to town for an 8 p.m. Saturday night matchup under the lights of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The players have trained and prepared the entire offseason and now it is their opportunity to showcase what all the hard work was for.
Leading into the first game, we’ve been counting down the 30 USC players most important to the Trojans’ success this season. This list is not the 30 most talented players or the 30 players that will put up the best stats, but instead the guys that could propel USC to a successful season.
Only three players remain — one on each side of the ball and one superfreak. Who are the three players remaining whose success is key for the Trojans’ season to be a success?
3. Cody Kessler - Redshirt Senior
There is not another amateur position that carries the cachet and glamour of USC starting quarterback. It carries with it the allure of national attention and the Hollywood spotlight, girls wanting to be with and guys wanting to be. Heisman trophy opportunities as fell as future marketing potential as a known commodity. In fact, there aren’t many professional positions that are as coveted.
And yet instead of a prototypical blond-haired pretty boy from Orange County heading the position (as is the case across town), it is the relatively unassuming kid from Bakersfield — a city known more as a stop along the way from SoCal to NorCal rather than a destination. Cody Kessler took a different route.
The former Bakersfield (Calif.) Centennial four-star quarterback was a high school All-American after tossing for 2,831 yards and 36 touchdowns as a senior. He was also careful with the ball as a high schooler, tossing just two interceptions his senior year while also rushing for 324 yards and eight touchdowns. A true duel-sport star, he also averaged 29.5 points, 11 rebounds and five assists per game on the hardwood becoming the first player to ever be named the Bakersfield Area Player of the Year in both sports.
But he wasn’t anointed as the next great thing when he committed to USC. He wasn’t handed the reins as a true freshman or even after a season on the bench. The key to the ride were still in the hands of the much-more quintessential USC quarterback Matt Barkley at the time.
Even then, the job wasn’t Kessler’s. Barkley was supposed to hand the offense over to the taller, stronger armed Max Wittek, just as Barkley had done at Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei. But everything has outliers, even the USC quarterback job description. Kessler beat out Wittek. Wittek had some off-the-field issues. Wittek transferred. In came another can’t miss quarterback prospect — the Gatorade National Player of the Year — that was going to beat out Kessler. But he has held off Max Browne as well.
Kessler continues to redefine the aura of the USC quarterback position. He isn’t going to do it the way Barkley, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez, Carson Palmer or even Todd Marinovich did it. He’s going to do it his own way. Kessler doesn’t have the quickest release, strongest arm, fastest feet or whatever attribute you want to throw out there. But he also doesn’t have a glaring weakness. He is as well-rounded of a quarterback as you will find in college football this season.
Last season, Kessler set USC records for completions (315), completion percentage (69.7) and passing efficiency (167.1) while throwing for nearly 4000 yards with 39 touchdowns —tying the school record — to only five interceptions. He passed for a career-high 394 yards in the season opener and later set the school record with seven touchdown passes in the Colorado game. He threw for five touchdowns in the first half alone against Notre Dame and was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week in all three instances. He also earned the Holiday Bowl Offensive MVP award after throwing for 321 yards and three touchdowns against Nebraska.
Coming off such an incredible statistical year, Kessler is in the preseason Heisman Trophy conversation, but he’d rather skip that talk and focus in on a Pac-12 championship. Kessler talks with the media, but he would avoid it if he could. He gets tired of answering questions about himself and his role. He’d rather be working towards the team’s goals. Those might come hand-in-hand this season though.
For that to happen, he’ll have to address one crucial area of concern: Kessler has struggled against ranked teams. His numbers show a drastic divide between ranked and unranked opponents. That’s where he has to step up and this is the year.
He has a full understanding of the offense. He could run it in his sleep. He has been surrounded by a bevy of weapons from Juju Smith-Schuster and Steven Mitchell Jr out wide to Tre Madden, Justin Davis and a trio of freshmen in the backfield. The offensive line is young, but experienced and led by an All-American candidate in center Max Tuerk. Then there’s that Adoree Jackson kid, who quickly becomes any quarterback’s best friend when he switches over to offense.
It’s up to Kessler to make his mark and leave behind a legacy that could become part of the Trojan lore if he can be the quarterback to lead USC back to the promised land after all the sanctions and turmoil that have surrounded the program in the last five years.
“The one thing I appreciate about Cody is that he’s a gym rat. He’s a blue collar guy. He works extremely hard. He is never satisfied with where he’s at and I think part of that is how far he’s had to come. He came in, he wasn’t the high-profile recruit. He was the guy who was third or fourth string on the depth chart and he’s earned his way all the way up to get to this point.
I just don’t think he wants this opportunity to pass. He’s working really hard. He’s doing a great job and I expect him to go out and play really good football for us. — USC head coach Steve Sarkisian
“I don’t have any. Team goals. Team goals.” — Cody Kessler
“Not much else to say about Cody that hasn't been said. You knew he was the guy for USC when you first saw him. The one issue everyone keeps bringing up: Cody vs. top teams is pretty much a bogus one in my mind. The problem in those games was more the constrained offense, the unwillingness to take risks when USC faced those "top" teams.
He destroyed the Notre Dame team that beat LSU in a bowl game its next game last year. He beat an awfully good Stanford team two years ago when allowed to take USC on the game-winning drive. Just get out of his way, I say." — Dan Weber, USCfootball.com
At Pac-12 media days, Keely Eure caught up with Cody Kessler to discuss the Trojans upcoming campaign and how the offseason went:
|3||Cody Kessler||166 pts||1 (Dan & Austin)||6 (Gerard Martinez)|
|4||Max Tuerk||155 pts||2 (Gerard Martinez)||9 (Shotgun Spratling)|
|5||JuJu Smith-Schuster||148 pts||4 (Four times)||15 (Shotgun Spratling)|
|6||Toa Lobendahn||132 pts||5 (Shotgun Spratling)||12 (Austin Geller)|
|7||Kevon Seymour||131 pts||5 (Gerard Martinez)||14 (Twice)|
|8||Antwaun Woods||125 pts||7 (Ryan Abraham)||17 (Dan Weber)|
|9||Justin Davis||124 pts||6 (Austin Geller)||16 (Shotgun Spratling)|
|10||Lamar Dawson||121 pts||2 (Shotgun Spratling)||17 (Keely Eure)|
|11||Steven Mitchell Jr.||120 pts||8 (Shotgun Spratling)||13 (Dan & Ryan)|
|12||Claude Pelon||109 pts||9 (Dan Weber)||17 (Austin Geller)|
|13||Tre Madden||98 pts||6 (Dan Weber)||Not listed (Shotgun Spratling)|
|14||Chad Wheeler||92 pts||6 (Keely Eure)||Not listed (Shotgun Spratling)|
|15||Iman Marshall||86 pts||11 (Ryan Abraham)||25 (Shotgun Spratling)|
|16||Delvon Simmons||84 pts||1 (Shotgun Spratling)||28 (Gerard Martinez)|
|17||Jabari Ruffin||79 pts||12 (Dan Weber)||25 (Ryan Abraham)|
|18||Anthony Sarao||77 pts||13 (Keely Eure)||26 (Austin Geller)|
|19||Zach Banner||72 pts||12 (Shotgun Sprating)||Not listed (Austin Geller)|
|20||John Plattenburg||68 pts||15 (Keely Eure)||29 (Austin Geller)|
|21||Damien Mama||49 pts||18 (Gerard Martinez)||27 (DanWeber)|
|22||Connor Spears||44 pts||13 (Austin Geller)||Not listed (Twice)|
|23||Max Browne||43 pts||19 (Twice)||Not listed (Shotgun Spratling)|
|24||Leon McQuay III||40 pts||17 (Ryan Abraham)||Not listed (Twice)|
|25||Osa Masina||39 pts||15 (Gerard Martinez)||Not listed (Keely Eure)|
|26||Darreus Rogers||36 pts||19 (Shotgun Spratling)||Not listed (Dan Weber)|
|27||Matt Boermeester||35 pts||18 (Dan Weber)||Not listed (Twice)|
|28||Chris Hawkins||34 pts||21 (Twice)||Not listed (Twice)|
|29||Viane Talamaivao||23 pts||22 (Keely Eure)||Not listed (Three times)|
|30||Ykili Ross||21 pts||22 (Austin Geller)||Not listed (Twice)|