Different paths, same goal
USC quarterback candidates bring different strengths to the competition
LOS ANGELES -- Cody Kessler and Max Wittek have ended every USC football practice this summer heading to their proverbial corners with their arms up in the air. Each believes that one week from Thursday, he will not only be the starting quarterback against Hawaii, but will be the Trojans' signal-caller for the next three seasons.
USC coach Lane Kiffin has done nothing to change that feeling publicly, and if this were a heavyweight championship fight, he continues to contend his scorecard would have it even through 10 rounds.
Of course, that's not exactly true to anyone who has watched USC practice this summer.
USC's quarterback battle has been a fairly lopsided affair from the opening round, and it would take some creative judging to change the final outcome one week before USC opens the season.
Kessler has clearly been the better quarterback in practices and in both scrimmages. Wittek might have appeared to be the incumbent after starting the last two games of the season, but if the job is truly going to go to the best quarterback -- and not the one with the highest ceiling or most experience -- Kessler is the choice, and it hasn't been as close as most expected.
Of course, Kiffin won't say that.
"We'd like to have had this done already a long time ago," Kiffin said. "Unfortunately, it's not, so we're going to continue to go until it gets decided."
It's not hard to notice the difference between a Wittek-led huddle and a Kessler-led huddle. Even if you're not watching practice, you can hear it from the baseball fields and the swimming pools adjacent to the football practice fields on USC's campus.
While Kessler is a vocal leader -- clapping his hands, slapping behinds and barking out instructions -- Wittek is like a quiet, calm veteran, constantly preparing himself to play on Sundays one day.
"Cody is a real high-energy guy, he likes to get the team going," said USC center Marcus Martin. "Max is more serious and more focused. He likes to concentrate on executing the play. Cody is more hyper. He likes to laugh and clap it up and say, 'C'mon boys.' Max likes to keep everything in order. He likes the huddle to be nice and tight and likes a uniform break. They're two different quarterbacks with two different styles of play and two different personalities."
Wittek has been groomed for this moment since he was in grade school.
He moved from Connecticut to Santa Ana, Calif., to attend Mater Dei High -- the same school that produced Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley -- and to work extensively with the same personal quarterback coach, Steve Clarkson, who trained Leinart and Barkley.
"I've been thinking about this moment for a long time," Wittek said. "I came to USC to be the starting quarterback." Wittek's parents separated when he was an infant. His father, Kurt, is a real estate developer in San Francisco, and his mother, Karen Kurensky, is a massage therapist. In 1994, when Wittek was six months old, Kurensky drove with Max from the Bay Area to Los Angeles to find a new home, but shortly after they arrived, the 6.7 Northridge earthquake hit. Rattled, Kurensky decided to move to Connecticut with her son to be closer to her family.
Kurt was still a big part of Max's life growing up, traveling to most of his sports events, and knew his son could be a great quarterback. In fact, one of his friends and business partners thought so, too. Now, that normally wouldn't mean much, except for the fact that friend was Joe Montana.
After speaking with Montana, Kurt set Max up with Clarkson, and when it was time to pick a high school, Clarkson recommended Max move out to California to attend Mater Dei, with the long-term goal of becoming USC's starting quarterback and following in the footsteps of Clarkson's other former Mater Dei protégés.
Wittek actually looks and plays more like Carson Palmer than Leinart or Barkley. He is 6-foot-4, 235 pounds with a strong arm. He was thrust into the spotlight last season when Barkley broke his collarbone against UCLA, and Wittek was forced to start against top-ranked Notre Dame in the Coliseum and Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. USC lost both games as Wittek struggled. He went 14-of-23 for 186 yards and two interceptions against Notre Dame, and then went 14-of-37 for 107 yards with three interceptions against Georgia Tech.
"I learned a lot from those games," Wittek said. "It's going to help me a lot moving forward, and it already has. I learned a lot about situational football. It's in the past, though. All I can do is learn from it and move forward."
About four years ago, Kessler wasn't sure if he wanted to play basketball or football.
As a point guard at Centennial High in Bakersfield, Calif., Kessler averaged 29.5 points, 11 rebounds and five assists and was named the Bakersfield Area Player of the Year. He received basketball scholarship offers from UC-Santa Barbara and San Jose State.
Kessler, however, was also named the player of the year in football, and by the time he was a senior, knew football was his calling. Getting heavily recruited by Pittsburgh, Nebraska, Boise State, Washington and, of course, USC, didn't hurt.
As much as Kessler wants to be the starting quarterback at USC, to say that he's been dreaming about it since he was a child wouldn't be accurate.
"I've never really dreamed of being a starting quarterback," Kessler said. "I've dreamed of winning a national championship. Winning the starting job is just something I set as a goal for myself when I got here. I expect that, but I dream about going 12-0 and winning the national championship and playing in the Rose Bowl."
Kessler looks, sounds and plays a lot like Sanchez, who was a similar 6-foot-2, 225-pound ball of energy wearing No. 6 when he was at USC. Much like Sanchez, Kessler doesn't speak in sound bites. Ask him a question and you might not get to your second question for a while. Kessler seems genuinely engaged and usually has to be pulled away to join the team in film sessions or weight training.
"I like to be vocal," Kessler said. "I like to lead by example. When I'm on the field and the team is down and things aren't going their way, they need someone like that. They need someone that's yelling and picking them up and getting them going."
Kessler is also an open book on social media, tweeting pictures of what he's eating and the concerts he's at, but he has used the platform to make a difference.
Last year he befriended Nathan Garcia, a 12-year-old from his hometown of Bakersfield, who was battling brain cancer. Kessler was Garcia's favorite player and he wanted to meet Kessler during the holidays. Kessler went to Garcia's house for Thanksgiving and was able to get Garcia and his family tickets to last year's USC-Notre Dame game. He continued to call Garcia and would drive to see his ailing friend.
After Garcia died in December, Kessler tweeted a picture of them with the message, "RIP Nathan Garcia. Thank you for changing my life forever. Miss you already, glad I got to say goodbye. Love you bud."
As different as Wittek and Kessler are on the field, the two are good friends off of it. They went to Haiti last year with some teammates for five days, building homes and working to help those in need. Earlier this summer, they drove to Mission Viejo, Calif., to help Sanchez with his "Jets West" camp, Sanchez's annual minicamp in his hometown.
Wittek and Kessler worked with Sanchez before and after practices and threw to NFL receivers like Jeremy Kerley, Stephen Hill, Konrad Reuland, Jeff Cumberland and Kellen Winslow, impressing everyone at the camp, including Sanchez.
"They both looked great," Sanchez said. "They threw the heck out of the ball. They're both ready to start. Their footwork is good and their mechanics are solid. Coach Kiffin is going to have those guys ready to roll, and one of those guys will emerge and play well."
So far in camp, Kessler has been the one who has emerged as the clear-cut favorite.
In USC's first scrimmage, he was 12-for-26 for 121 yards and one touchdown playing with USC's first team. Wittek was 13-for-20 for 193 yards and two touchdowns while playing with the second team. Kessler, however, may have distanced himself from Wittek in last week's second scrimmage, when he went 20-for-28 for 281 yards and three touchdowns, while Wittek was just 2-for-7 for 15 yards, unable to do much better than go three-and-out against USC's first-string defense.
Kessler also took the majority of first-team reps when USC practiced under the lights at the Coliseum for the first and only time during camp this week, and another strong showing in today's final scrimmage should be enough to win him the starting job a week before the season opener.
Of course, Kiffin won't make an announcement until he absolutely has to, which could mean waiting until USC takes the field at Aloha Stadium for its first offensive series of the season.
"There's no deadline," Kiffin said. "I'd prefer to have a starter today. I'd prefer to have a starter a long time ago, but it's not what I prefer. We have to make sure we make the right decision."