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Cody Kessler hopes rollercoaster USC career ends on a high

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Cody Kessler has thrown for 6,803 yards with 59 TDSs and 12 INTs in his USC career. Garry Paskwietz/ESPN

Cody Kessler is about to start graduate school, in more ways than one.

Not only did Kessler begin classes last week in the master’s program for the USC Annenberg School of Communications, but he is about to begin his fifth year with the football program and third year as the starting quarterback. To have that kind of veteran experience at the quarterback spot is rare in college football and the Trojans will be relying on every bit of his knowledge and leadership in the coming year.

You would be hard-pressed to find a quarterback who has seen more in his career than Kessler. He was originally recruited to USC by Pete Carroll, has been on the roster during the brunt of heavy NCAA sanctions, went through an intense battle to earn the starting spot as a sophomore and is now playing for his fourth head coach.

Along the way he has seen a coach fired on an airport tarmac, a fellow team captain fall from grace after telling a false story about rescuing a child from a pool and his current coach being put into the center of a media firestorm following a recent season kickoff event.

Through it all, Kessler has stayed off the front page and largely out of the limelight, preferring to spend his off-time heading home to visit with his family in Bakersfield, California or to attend an occasional country music concert.

When it comes to the Trojans, however, there is no doubt about who the undisputed leader is so it was no surprise last week during the controversy that surrounded Steve Sarkisian’s Salute to Troy appearance that it was Kessler who calmed much of the fury by stepping in front of the microphone and assuring everyone that the players had their coach’s back and supported him in every way.

Now comes the time when the experience of dealing with all those ups and downs should pay off as Kessler, who was named a team captain for the second straight year, takes the field with high hopes for his USC team. The roster is stacked, not completely back to full strength after years of sanctions but filled with enough talent that the Trojans were picked by the media to win the Pac-12 conference title, and there is even some talk of the college football playoffs. Kessler himself is also being mentioned, justifiably so, as a preseason Heisman candidate after a junior season that saw him complete nearly 70 percent of his passes with 39 touchdowns and only five interceptions.

It remains to be seen if he will match those lofty numbers, or if he will even need to. The most important thing for Kessler this year is to guide the ship, to put his teammates in the best position to succeed and to be the voice of reason and the steady eyes in the huddle when times get tough. That will be the true test of how far he has come in his career because if there is one question mark of Kessler to this point it’s that he hasn’t come up big in the biggest games. The criticism is fair enough, but he will have every opportunity to change that perception during a season that features road games against ASU, Notre Dame and Oregon along with a regular-season finale against UCLA.

Kessler has said that one of the reasons he chose to study communications in graduate school is that he wants to someday enter the media field, to be a commentator on college football or sports in general, and he mentioned former USC quarterback Matt Leinart as an example of someone who has gone into television work after a professional career. For all of Leinart’s accomplishments, the Heisman included, he is probably remembered most for a turn of events that happened in his senior year, on the road against the Irish, on a game-winning drive that will be forever etched in USC lore simply as “4th-and-9” and the Bush push.

If Kessler can find that kind of moment, and raise his team to similar heights, he will certainly earn an “A” grade in the graduate school course known as College Football 101.