True freshmen in line to back up Barkely

Cody Kessler came in, like a lot of freshmen, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, and realizing in the back of his mind that reality would probably fall somewhere in between.

Not many true freshman quarterbacks get a real sniff of the field in their first year on campus, except the guy Kessler was coming to USC hoping to replace someday, Matt Barkley.

But now, two weeks before the season opener Sept. 3 against Minnesota, Kessler finds himself in the mildly surprising position of competing to be Barkley's understudy, and the guy warming up quickly if the standout junior goes down with an injury.

"Honestly I really didn't expect this," Kessler said. "I came in [for spring practice] and I knew that there were two other guys besides me who were going to be competing for the same spot. But I didn't realize it'd come down to this and be this close."

USC was already going to be thin and inexperienced at quarterback this season. Then redshirt freshman Jesse Scroggins tore ligaments in his thumb during the team's first scrimmage, leaving true freshmen Kessler and Max Wittek as the only capable backups.

As much as Kessler prepared for this in the spring, and dreamed about this when he signed with the Trojans out of Centennial High in Bakersfield, it still feels like a bit of a shock.

"It's unfortunate what's happened to Jesse, we're still praying for him and hoping for the best, but at the same time, it did happen and we kind of have to expect that at anytime me or Max could go in," Kessler said.

While Barkley is regarded as a durable, tough, physical quarterback, he's missed one game because of injury in each of his first two seasons. It's also worth noting that USC needs to replace three starters on its offensive line.

In other words, USC can't just hope Barkley stays healthy all year, it must doggedly prepare one or both of the true freshmen to step in for him at some point.

It's an issue USC coach Lane Kiffin has been dealing with almost since the day he took over for Pete Carroll as NCAA sanctions, scholarship restrictions and the subsequent transfers of upperclassmen have cut deeply into the Trojans depth at multiple positions.

While USC has always had a reputation of encouraging freshmen to compete for playing time, it was previously done in a more competitive spirit, not out of necessity.

"We need them [freshmen] to play more because of depth issues at certain positions," Kiffin said. "Definitely more than we did the last time we were here [on Carroll's staff]."

Kessler and Wittek have gone back-and-forth in the race to back-up Barkley throughout fall camp. Kiffin will likely wait until the end of camp to declare a winner.

"You just have to keep bringing it every day," Kessler said. "I'm still learning and getting used to the speed of the college game. Because there are throws you can make in high school where if you wait a half a second, it'll still be there, whereas in college, if you wait half a second it's not there anymore or it's getting intercepted. You have to make decisions a lot quicker.

"But I am getting used to it. From spring [practice] until now, that's been the biggest difference for me."

Also: Freshman wide receiver George Farmer was held out of Saturday's practice after experiencing concussion-like symptoms on Friday. He has been ruled out of Sunday's scrimmage at the Coliseum.