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USC's Cody Kessler, Ohio State's J.T. Barrett get in reps at Elite 11

Tom Hauck for Student Sports

BEAVERTON, Oregon -- Back in the winter, as USC quarterback Cody Kessler weighed whether to come back for a fifth season or enter the NFL draft, it occurred to him why he should return.

“I didn’t come back to win a Heisman or be an All-American, as nice as those honors are,” Kessler said this week between sessions at the Elite 11 QB camp at Nike, where he was one of eight college counselors.

“I came back because I’m tiring of losing four games a year. I came back because I wanted to win a Pac-12 title, a national title. I really think this could be that year. We could be the team to do that.”

Sound familiar? It should. It’s almost verbatim what Kessler’s predecessor, Matt Barkley, cited when he returned to USC for the 2012 season.

It didn’t work out well at all for Barkley, and the much-hyped ‘12 Trojans, who dropped five of their final six games and finished 7-6 despite entering the season ranked No. 1. (Barkley also went from a projected top-15 pick to the fourth round.)

So what’s the difference between now and then, between Kessler and Barkley’s declarations? Well, for one, Kessler was on the 2012 team. He was a redshirt freshman whose greatest contribution then was that he was the team’s holder.

He had a front-row seat to see a USC team deal poorly with hype and expectation -- and subsequently fall on its face. He said it wasn’t as if those Trojans had a lack of effort, but he wonders if that team was overconfident and potentially didn’t work as hard as a result.

There’s no danger of that in 2015, Kessler said.

“How could we be [overconfident]?” he said. “The last two years have been ... humbling.”

Think of what the older players like Kessler have been through, most notably working through depth issues because of NCAA scholarship restrictions, and then Lane Kiffin’s decline and fall as head coach.

Kessler agreed that what the 2013 team did to salvage the season proved vitally important for the health of the program. The definitive rock bottom came after a 62-41 loss at Arizona State, which led to Kiffin's immediate firing. But the program didn’t last long in the pit, thanks to budding leaders such as Kessler -- who has a career 59-12 TD-to-INT rate -- and the Ed Orgeron-led interim coaching staff.

“It’s to the point now where everyone feels like it’s done,” Kessler said of the adversity that defined much of his first four seasons at USC. “It feels like we’re back.”

Kessler’s thoughts on USC’s expectations and personnel led off Elite 11 Takeaways from Nike HQ. Later: The college QBs who had campers and event officials buzzing; Clemson QB Deshaun Watson’s injury timeline; Ohio State’s mystery man; Penn State QB enters a crucial stretch; and which QB prospects have a chance to shine as freshmen in 2016.

Hackenberg’s road to the ’16 draft

If there’s a thing as a “contract year” in college football, Christian Hackenberg is entering it. The Penn State junior is No. 1 on Mel Kiper’s initial “Big Board” for 2016; Kiper has him as the second-rated QB behind Cal’s Jared Goff.

With even a decent season, Hackenberg will be a sizzling-hot NFL prospect in the spring. At 6-4 and 230 pounds, he has a prototypical frame that already has scouts drooling. It wouldn’t at all be surprising to see him sneak into the top five.

What those scouts will be carefully monitoring this fall: Can Hackenberg get his TD-to-INT rate back in good form after it dipped to 12-15 last year? There were plenty of extenuating circumstances that led to such a high turnover rate -- a new coaching staff, an inexperienced line and receiver group -- but in the end, Hackenberg has to show this fall that he can be far more efficient.

Hackenberg acknowledged that he’s aware of the draft chatter, but he said it’s not something he obsesses over.

“I’ve always been a guy to try and immerse myself in the process,” Hackenberg said this week. “Right now, the task at hand is to be better than 7-6 (the team’s 2014 record) and win more football games and to do my part to win more games.”

Barrett speaks with actions

On Monday afternoon, a couple of reporters asked Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett if he would mind being interviewed. Barrett politely declined.

He’s in such a strange, unprecedented situation that it’s difficult to blame him. What can you really say when you’re in a three-man QB race and each of the three QBs is a star? It’s sort of awkward right now, the unknown as to how this will play out for Barrett, Braxton Miller and Cardale Jones.

Even though Jones would seem to have the lead right now simply because he’s the healthiest, several college coaches familiar with the situation -- and who know Barrett -- believe he’ll eventually win back the job he held for the majority of the 2014 season.

His impressive showing this week at Nike seemed to back up that notion. The camp’s receivers raved that Barrett was the best college QB throwing to them. The high school QB prospects mentioned him first when asked about the college QBs.

There were eight talented college quarterbacks in Beaverton, but Barrett stood out most.

Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs was another QB often mentioned. Dobbs’ arm strength has improved dramatically in the two-plus years he’s been in Knoxville. Like many of his teammates, Dobbs could be poised to make a big jump this fall.

Arizona State’s Mike Bercovici won the unofficial competition held between the counselors. Dobbs was the runner-up. At 6-foot-1 and around 200 pounds, Bercovici isn’t the physical specimen that Hackenberg is, but he more than makes up for that with accuracy and a better fastball than you’d expect.

Watson’s ‘weird’ freshman year

Clemson’s Deshaun Watson said he never experienced any major injury in high school, so there was nothing to prepare him for what transpired his freshman year at Clemson.

Watson broke his collarbone in the spring, fractured a bone in his right hand early in the season and then he tore his left ACL late in the fall.

“It was so weird,” Watson said, shaking his head. “I’d never been through anything like that. There was definitely a feeling in the big picture of, 'Why is this happening to me?’ I had to push past that. I really do think everything happens for a reason.”

In between the injuries, Watson showed he has Heisman-level potential. That was on display from the moment he threw a post-route laser of a TD in the opener at Georgia.

Watson said that he officially has not been cleared to practice, but like Barrett, he’s not expecting any limitations once preseason camp begins next month. Neither Barrett nor Watson wore any kind of leg brace during Elite 11, and neither player showed any effects of the injuries.

Next Charles Woodson?

Kessler said if he’s “being selfish,” USC super sophomore Adoree' Jackson would solely play receiver. But, alas, the offense has to share him with DC Justin Wilcox and the defense.

In the spring, Kessler said Jackson would spend one day of practice at receiver, the next at cornerback and then would split time on both sides of the ball for the third.

“And then after that, he was going out and winning the Pac-12 title in the long jump,” Kessler said. “He’s ridiculous.”

Because of Jackson’s potential impact on offense, defense and special teams -- he’s also an electrifying return man -- comparisons to do-it-all Heisman winner Charles Woodson are starting to surface. Kessler is the early USC Heisman favorite, but Jackson just might give him a run.

Thoughts on ‘16 QBs

  • Even before his senior year in high school, Georgia commit Jacob Eason already looks physically like a leaner version of Hackenberg. His size (6-foot-5) and arm power has drawn comparisons to former UGA QB Matt Stafford. By no coincidence, Eason chose Georgia in part because of his affinity for Stafford’s game.

  • The Elite 11 staff spoke incredibly highly of the leadership and maturity displayed by South Carolina commit Brandon McIlwain. “He’s in the front of every meeting, totally focused,” one official said. “Everything is ‘yes sir, no sir.’ We love him.”

  • Only two of the 18 Elite 11 competitors have yet to commit. One, Dillon Sterling-Cole, received strong reviews. Florida and Arizona State are thought to be the current leaders, but don’t sleep on hometown program Houston. New Cougars coach Tom Herman has a lot of recruiting momentum in the city, and he wants to find a centerpiece QB as he builds the program.

  • Oklahoma State commit Nick Starkel turned heads this week. Starkel’s father said his son had just six major offers, partly because he was somewhat less visible playing in a private school league in the Dallas area.

  • Texas commit Shane Buechele had a solid camp. At 6-foot-1 and with a gritty work ethic, the Colt McCoy comparisons are already rolling in. Texas can only hope. Buechele does have athletic genes; his father, Steve, played 11 years in the majors.