Max Wittek was first in line behind Matt Barkley in 2012. (US Presswire)
Matt Barkley still has every intention of playing in his final college game at USC, a New Year's Eve date with Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, but he's not in any rush. According to coach Lane Kiffin, Barkley's ailing shoulder will keep him out of bowl practices until at least Dec. 26, when the Trojans arrive in El Paso, and possibly longer. In the meantime, with virtually nothing at stake in the game for Barkley or his team on the heels of arguably the worst season ever for a team that began the year ranked No. 1, the emphasis has already begun to shift from the outgoing star to the heir apparent.
With Barkley on ice, USC opened bowl practices over the weekend by alternating redshirt freshmen Cody Kessler and Max Wittek with the first-string offense, a preview of the competition for the starting job in spring practice. Kiffin went so far as to acknowledge that the next ten days – and possibly the game itself, if Barkley doesn't play – will be viewed as part of that duel.
"We've been splitting reps with these two, much like we will in the spring," Kiffin told the Orange County Register, "and really going back and forth with them, giving them both shots. ... This is just part of the eventual competition for who will be the starter next year.''
Kessler and Wittek both arrived in 2011 as touted, four-star prospects in the mold of a long line of big, statuesque slingers at USC, the latter even coming from the same high school that produced Barkley and former Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart. During the regular season, Wittek appeared briefly in six games before earning his first career start in place of an injured Barkley in the season finale, a 22-13 loss against top-ranked Notre Dame. Opposite the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation, he was 14-of-23 passing for 186 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
But the soon-to-be sophomores won't have the huddle to themselves for long: Emerging from the pipeline in the spring will be Max Browne, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound freshman from Sammamish, Wash., rated by nearly every recruiting site as the most coveted quarterback in the 2013 class. (Several sites, including 247sports, rate him among the top five incoming prospectsin the nation, regardless of position.) If he's up to speed, or close enough that it won't take him long to get there, Browne is expected to have every opportunity to overtake Kessler and Wittek at the top of the depth chart.
If that sounds familiar, it should: When Barkley became the first true freshman starter in school history over a pair of older, highly touted contenders in 2009, it was considered a bold, borderline impulsive move by then-head coach Pete Carroll, and ultimately coincided with the Trojans' fall from the top of the West Coast food chain. Even over the last four years, though, the standard timeline for developing quarterbacks has rapidly accelerated. Three of USC's five losses in 2012 (against Notre Dame, Oregon and UCLA) came at the hands of a redshirt freshman quarterback, and a fourth came at the hands of a team (Stanford) that went on to win the conference championship after switching to a redshirt freshman starter in November. (There's also the matter of the redshirt freshman who just won the Heisman.) True, those success stories all involve redshirts in their second year on campus, not a traditional freshman like Browne. But with Kiffin's job on the line in 2013, there is no time for playing it safe.