- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- The three-man race is back on. Not that it was ever really off. But when USC quarterback Max Wittek took an unscheduled hiatus to nurse a sprained medial collateral ligament, it gave Cody Kessler and early enrollee Max Browne an opportunity to gain some ground on the only USC quarterback with playing experience.
“You never want to see any of your teammates going down, but stuff like that happens,” Kessler said. “But when it does, there are more reps for me and Max (Browne). Our reps doubled with Max going down. I just have this mindset right now of staying so focused and stuck on one goal. You feel like nothing gets in your way. You know when you get in that zone? You’re so focused. Those guys will say they have the same mindset. That nothing can stop you. I feel like I’ve been locked into that mindset.”
All three are vying to replace Matt Barkley -- a four-year starter who holds the Pac-12 record for most career touchdown passes. And while Barkley is showing off his wares for NFL brass at today’s USC pro day, the trio of would-be starters is continuing a competition that is expected to stretch well into the fall.
It’s been three weeks off for Wittek -- three missed practices and then spring break. So getting back on the field Tuesday was a positive step. Not, though, that his time on the sidelines was wasted.
“I got a lot of work in the film room,” Wittek said. “Not playing gave me an opportunity to see how the other guys work and learn from what they do well and their mistakes -- just as I’m sure they learn from my mistakes. It’s been a good process, being able to look at things from a different perspective.”
But his first practice back happened to be on a day when the defensive front seven was playing inspired football. The defense dominated the line of scrimmage, and cornerback Torin Harris was all over the secondary with three pass breakups in a 10-play span.
Head coach Lane Kiffin assessed Wittek’s return.
“Not 100 percent. You could see he’s struggling a little bit with it -- even just in one-on-ones,” Kiffin said. “It’s nothing that is going to be long-term. It will get better every day.”
Wittek appeared in five games last season -- including starting the final two games, when Barkley was injured. For the season, he completed 52.2 percent of his throws with three touchdowns to five interceptions. In the two starts -- against Notre Dame in the regular-season finale and against Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl -- those numbers dip to a 46.7 percent completion rate with two touchdowns and five picks.
Those two games at the end of the season might have been Wittek’s audition -- or, at the very least, might have helped the competition supplant him as the front-runner for 2013. He doesn’t look at it like that.
“A lot of people see it as a lost opportunity,” Wittek said. “I see it as a big-time learning experience. Those were two games I never would have gotten had the opportunity not presented itself. Being able to get in those games, play -- good, bad or indifferent -- I was in there and felt what it was like be in front of a large crowd in on a nationally televised stage.
“The Georgia Tech game, obviously not my best game ever; it was pretty bad, actually -- but walking away from that game, it was kind of cool,” Wittek continued. "I didn’t play as well as I could of. We lost the game. But when I think about the opportunities still to come, I got excited. I was able to go back and watch that game three or four times over and I saw where I could have improved. … Situational football is what I took away from it. I’m looking forward to bringing what I’ve learned to the table and growing from that.”
In Wittek’s absence, Kessler has made a big push, performing well in a pair of scrimmages. And Browne continues to make the most of his opportunities -- taking advantage of the fact that this is technically the second half of his senior year in high school.
“You get in here, learn the offense and you get to make your mistakes early,” Browne said. “So come summer and fall, you get your chance to compete. Academically and athletically it’s a good jump start. I’ve had some struggles early, but people keep saying that’s normal. My first few weeks with the playbook, it’s been pretty good. I came in knowing there were going to be two great quarterbacks and that’s what I found out. I feel like it’s been a healthy competition.”