- Kyle Bonagura, Pac-12 reporter
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After throwing for 3,826 yards and a school-record 39 touchdown passes in 2014, USC quarterback Cody Kessler could have called it a career and would have undoubtedly been selected in the upcoming NFL draft. However, he put those plans on hold for a shot at a national championship.
Kessler sat down with the Pac-12 blog last week for a conversation at the midway point of spring practice. Here are some of the takeaways.
1. Look out for WR Steven Mitchell
When Nelson Agholor announced he would be leaving early for the NFL, the Trojans lost a player responsible for over 30 percent of their receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches. Few players in the country meant more to their teams. Without him, JuJu Smith became Kessler's de facto go-to receiver, but Kessler was complimentary of what he's seen from Mitchell, who caught seven passes for 82 yards and a pair of touchdowns as a redshirt freshman.
Kessler on which receivers have impressed during the spring: "Obviously [receiver] JuJu Smith. He had a big season last year as a freshman -- freshman All-American. He's going to be a great player. My favorite standout in camp right now is [receiver] Steven Mitchell. He's playing the slot position. He played a little bit last year, but a lot of times Nelson Agholor was in that position. ... Some other receivers have been looking good too: Darreus Rogers, Isaac Whitney is the new guy we got, but I think the biggest standout has been Steven Mitchell behind Juju."
2. Second spring under Sarkisian more productive
A year ago at this time, USC was still in the early stages of its transition to new coach Steve Sarkisian, his staff and system. Spring was as much a feeling-out process for the coaches and players as it was about X's and O's. Now that the familiarity is there -- both from personal and football standpoints -- they've been able to make more significant progress in all areas. That's to be expected in any second year for a coaching staff but regardless, the difference has been obvious, Kessler said.
"It's exciting because guys don't have to think as much," Kessler said. "Last year, I thought I knew the offense, but I was thinking too much. This year guys are going to the right spot and something we've emphasized [since Sarkisian arrived] was tempo. We're going a million times faster this spring. It's been exciting."
3. Expectations can't be any higher
You've heard it before, USC is about winning championships. Last year, it just wasn't realistic. This year, it's at least worth having a conversation about. Assuming the highly-touted recruiting class coming in can provide a few breakthrough players -- a la Adoree' Jackson and Smith last year -- and shore up the depth chart, there is enough talent to foresee a scenario in which the Trojans could win the Pac-12 (they were a few plays from playing for the title last year) and qualify for the College Football Playoff. USC has never shied away from acknowledging those expectations and nothing has changed this year.
"Guys before us set the bar so high. You have to think Pac-12 championship, national championship every season," Kessler said. "You can't think, 'OK, let's win eight games this year and that'll be a win for us.' No, that's not a good season. Expectations here are that you need to win it all. That's something Coach Sark said, 'We didn't come here to win games, we came here to win championships.' Obviously you do that by winning games, but our ultimate goal at the end of the day is to win the Pac-12 championship and win the national championship."
4. USC's offense best of both worlds
Sarkisian's up-tempo, pro-style offense is unique in college football -- not for any aspect in particular, but for the combination of concepts. They try to force defenses into mistakes with tempo, but the quarterback still calls protections and make reads in a similar capacity that he would in something more traditional. It's appealing to Kessler for a number of reasons, but he's convinced it'll help the transition to the NFL when that comes.
"It's pretty much the same offense that's been here since Pete Carroll was here, but now it's out of the shotgun and more up-tempo," Kessler said. "Looking at last year, we had a lot of advantage plays where guys weren't lined up or are substituted while we're snapping the ball. But sometimes we can slow it down a little bit, audible into something else we feel will work."
5. Getting away from football is important, too
Kessler is roommates with center Max Tuerk and linebacker Su'a Cravens -- a situation, Kessler said, has been beneficial because they all have the same goal: to play in the NFL. That doesn't mean it is all football all the time, however. They take advantage of living in Los Angeles whenever time permits.
"I think the biggest thing is just going to the beach. It's a 10-minute drive to Santa Monica," Kessler said. "We're trying to get Su'a more involved in the country atmosphere. Max and I will go line dancing, we're going to Stagecoach [a country music festival in Southern California]. We're trying to get him familiar with that, but he's not really buying it."
The Trojans QB talks breakout receivers, the second year under Sark and line dancing with his center.