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Thursday, August 21, 2014
Better know a Pac-12 QB: Cody Kessler

By Kevin Gemmell

The Pac-12 is blessed with an abundance of returning starting quarterbacks in 2014. With 10 starters coming back, many are wondering if the league is on pace for its best quarterback year ever. This week the Pac-12 blog will give you a snapshot of all 10.

Name: Cody Kessler

School: USC

Grade: Junior

Cody Kessler
Cody Kessler finished with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions last fall.
2013 passing stats: Completed 236 of 361 passes (65.4 percent) for 2,968 yards with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Posted a raw QBR of 59 with an adjusted QBR of 66.1.

Career passing stats: Completed 238 of 363 passes (65.6 percent) for 2,977 yards with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Posted a raw QBR of 59 with an adjusted QBR of 66.1.

2013 rushing stats: Rushed 42 times for minus-124 yards with one rushing touchdown.

Career rushing stats: Same as above.

Kessler on Twitter

What you need to know about Kessler: Kessler was locked in a quarterback competition with Max Wittek following the 2012 season and Matt Barkley's departure. That competition went from the winter into the spring and continued to spill over into the fall while then-coach Lane Kiffin flip-flopped the first few games. Kessler eventually won the job and -- under offensive coordinator Clay Helton’s direction and play-calling -- steadily improved during the Ed Orgeron era. When Steve Sarkisian was hired, Kessler proved himself all over again, beating out Max Browne in the spring to retain his spot. He has a firm grasp of the pro-style scheme and showed his smarts to Sarkisian and Co. by quickly picking up the up-tempo elements. So much so that Sarkisian named Kessler the starter in the 12th practice of the spring.

Career high point: From a team standpoint, without a question, it was the victory against Stanford last season. Kessler was an efficient 25 of 37 for 288 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. From a personal, statistical standpoint, he was outstanding in USC’s 45-20 win against Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl. He connected on 22 of 30 passes for a career high 345 yards and four touchdowns and was named the game’s MVP.

Career low point: Kessler had one multi-interception game last season, and it was in a 62-41 blowout loss to ASU. Not only was that a low point for him, but it was one of the darkest days in program history (or brightest, depending how you felt about Kiffin). That loss led to Kiffin’s infamous airport firing, but also united the Trojans under Orgeron and they went on to win seven of their final nine games. Still, that had to be a bad flight from Tempe to Los Angeles.

When he was a recruit: The No. 29 overall quarterback in the 2011 class, Kessler was 26 slots lower than Max Wittek, who also signed with USC that year and eventually transferred when Kessler earned the starting position. Despite lacking prototypical height for the position, Kessler earned offers from Alabama, Arizona State, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, UCLA and Washington, among others. Fortuitous timing led to his commitment to USC. As Kessler was in his coach’s office, ready to make a phone call and commit to the Washington Huskies and then-head coach Steve Sarkisian, the phone rang. It was the USC coaches calling to offer a scholarship, which completely changed the trajectory of Kessler’s recruitment. Kessler jumped on board, even though the Trojans already held a commitment from Wittek. Kessler went on to grind his way to the top of the depth chart, which sounds fairly familiar. "Kessler is an impressive prospect that grows on you the more you watch him. He has a salty demeanor and swagger about him that makes you want to watch more of him," his ESPN Recruiting Nation profile read.

Opposing head coach's take: "Cody battled some early things. He didn’t play great early in the season. But we really saw him come on. Much like a Kevin Hogan, it’s not always the highlight plays. But you see a guy make a tough play to win a football games -- taking a hit in the pocket and standing in there to make a play down the field, pushing up in the pocket and escaping for a first down. You see him do all the things that good football players do."

What to expect in 2014: Kessler is accurate and he takes care of the football. Those are two extremely important keys to success, regardless of who your coach is or what kind of a scheme you run. Of the returning starters, only Marcus Mariota had fewer interceptions than Kessler. And it’s worth noting that after Kiffin was fired and Helton took over the play-calling, Kessler had just three interceptions over the final nine games. No other quarterback in the league can claim that type of ball security over that stretch. Sarkisian wisely retained Helton as his offensive coordinator, which Kessler has said several times was a big relief because those two work so well together. So you factor all of that, combined with the experience gained last season and an up-tempo twist (which certainly benefited Keith Price's efficiency last season when Sarkisian was at Washington), and you have the potential for a very efficient and dangerous quarterback. Oh yeah, it also helps to have Nelson Agholor and a healthy George Farmer at receiver.

Erik McKinney contributed reporting.