Tuesday March 31st, 2015

LOS ANGELES—How’s this for the quarterback of (what is supposed to be) the biggest, baddest college football team on the West Coast: Cody Kessler likes line dancing. Loves it, in fact. Takes his roommates. Owns multiple pairs of cowboy boots, both in his apartment near campus and back home in Bakersfield, Calif.

He likes country music, too. Last summer during Stagecoach, a giant outdoor country music festival in Indio, Calif., Kessler befriended superstar artists Luke Bryan and the duo from Florida Georgia Line, all noted college football fans, at the grocery store. (Bryan, who was born in Leesburg, Ga., is known to tailgate at Georgia games.) They talked about life in the public eye in the era of social media, when anything and everything can be captured and shared by fans. Kessler gets almost giddy telling this story; how often does USC’s quarterback get star-struck?

In a sport loaded with too-serious 21-year-olds who treat football like a job, Kessler is a big kid, interjecting hearty laughs into every conversation and covering his mouth to hide giggles. It’s part of why teammates rally around him. He plays with a freedom that allows him to thrive, not crumble, on one of college football’s biggest stages. And, yes, even though the rising senior flew mostly under the radar last season in a conference full of quarterback talent, he absolutely faced pressure.

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“When you’re the quarterback at USC, in the Los Angeles media market, I don’t know if there’s anywhere in the country with more eyes on you,” Trojans offensive coordinator Clay Helton says.

Kessler’s numbers last fall—he completed 315 of 452 passes (69.7%) for 3,826 yards with 39 touchdowns and just five interceptions, the most efficient passing season in USC history—were eye-popping. But in a league that featured the likes of Oregon’s Marcus Mariota (the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner), UCLA’s Brett Hundley and a boatload of other talented quarterbacks, not many people talked about Kessler. Given his production, he could have easily skipped his senior season and headed for the NFL. But Kessler, a 6’1”, 210-pounder, wants more. And because he is on the Trojans, more is expected of him.

Plus, he goes to USC, home to one of the most gorgeous campuses in the nation, a fact that prompts Kessler to spread his arms, swivel his head and ask incredulously, “How could you want to leave this?”

Kessler didn’t grow up a USC fan, per se, but remembers attending a Trojans home game against Fresno State on Nov. 19, 2005. He was a seventh-grader, and this was his first real taste of big-time college football. Somewhere at his parents’ house in Bakersfield, he still has the Reggie Bush jersey he bought at the game. Early on, he thought he would play hoops—“basketball was my first love,” the former point guard says—but the more time he spent on the football field, the harder he fell for the sport.

Awards rolled in, and so did scholarship offers. Like many touted prospects, Kessler grew disenchanted with the recruiting process, stressed by endless calls and people asking if he had made a decision. He grew especially close with Steve Sarkisian, then the Washington head coach, a former USC assistant with a reputation for developing quarterbacks. But the day Kessler called to commit to the Huskies, USC intervened.

“Less than a minute before I’m about to pick up the phone and call Sark and say I’m going to come there, the phone rings, and it’s coach Helton saying they want to offer me,” Kessler recalls. “They hope it’s not too late, they’ve offered Max Wittek, too, but they want two guys …”

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It’s tough to turn down a powerhouse. Kessler pledged his loyalty to USC and then wondered if he should have gone elsewhere when Wittek won the starting job in 2012, Kessler’s redshirt freshman year. Kessler knew he would be peppered with questions from the media following USC’s 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31. Wittek played every snap that game, completing just 14 of 37 attempts for a paltry 107 yards with a touchdown. He also threw three interceptions as Kessler waited on the bench. “I was never even told to warm up,” Kessler says. “I’m sitting there wondering, ‘Am I ever even gonna get a chance?”

Postgame interviews were an opportunity to express his disappointment or declare his intention to help the Trojans get better. He went with the latter since he thought it sounded better. But he said it so much—“I’m just gonna keep my head down and go back to work because I can’t wait for next year”—that he started to believe it. 

Kessler was named the starter and played well in 2013, going 236 of 361 (65.4%) for 2,968 yards with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. But his progress went overlooked following the midseason firing of coach Lane Kiffin. Kiffin’s dismissal opened the door for Sarkisian’s return in December ’13. During Sarkisian’s first day on campus, he quipped to Kessler, “You just can’t get away from me, can you?”

Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Sarkisian and Helton grade quarterbacks by three measures: Decision-making, timing and accuracy. Kessler’s accuracy is tied directly to his basketball roots. A former point guard who garnered a handful of hoops scholarship offers from small Division I schools, Kessler often sees plays before they fully develop on the field, just like he did on the court. “He has great anticipatory skills. You’ll see him pull the trigger before guys even come in the window,” Helton says. “When he was young, I used to see stuff fast. Now he’s as good as I am, maybe faster.”

Sarkisian has told Kessler good quarterbacks are like good point guards: They recognize who needs the ball at crucial moments and put it in their hands.

Cody Kessler's Career Stats
Year CMP % Yards TDs INTs
2012 100.0 9 0 0
2013 65.4 2,968 20 7
2014 69.7 3,826 39 5

Still, Kessler thinks he has plenty to work on. USC finished 9-4 last season, an average record by program standards, with puzzling losses to Boston College and Utah. Outsiders might give USC a pass because of the lingering effects of crippling sanctions that depleted depth, but Kessler says he and his teammates aren’t using that as an excuse—have you seen the talent on this roster?

Kessler’s biggest offseason focus has been footwork. USC surrendered 32 sacks last fall, and Kessler blames himself for lots of them. “The numbers look good,” he says, “but there are sacks I shouldn’t have taken.” Even in the Holiday Bowl, where he was terrific in USC’s 45-42 win over Nebraska (he completed 23 of 39 attempts for 321 yards with three touchdowns), Kessler was sacked twice. It still bugs him.

He isn’t trying to become a dual-threat guy, but would like complete plays with his feet occasionally, especially when the Trojans are in the red zone. And, hey, he says proudly, he once rushed for a 60-yard touchdown at Centennial High, so he has a history of using his legs. Granted, “I was dead at the end,” he says. “You can see it on the film: I get up and I’m bent over for more than 30 seconds, just sucking in air.”  Even now, Kessler’s extended scrambles earn him some ribbing from teammates, who like to remind him he doesn’t exactly possess sprinter speed.

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Kessler and USC don’t have use for “one game at a time” or “enjoying the journey” clichés. Everyone is here to win a title, and Kessler came back specifically for that reason. There’s a bit of added motivation, too. Last week documents from former USC assistant coach Todd McNair’s case against the NCAA were released per court orders, and the results all but confirm what many suspected for years: It looks like the NCAA was on a witch hunt of sorts in the wake of the Bush scandal, determined to mete out an unprecedented punishment. The documents have no direct affect on Kessler and his teammates, but the NCAA’s sentencing played a role in USC’s slide toward mediocrity. It has been a long time since the Trojans have been on top. Kessler wants to pull them back up.

“As the quarterback, people are going to blame and praise you first, and coach Helton and Sark are always telling me I don’t have to put it all on my shoulders,” Kessler says. “But I want that. I’m so attached to this school, I love it so much, I want to help them do well. I think this year can be a turning point for us.”

Fittingly, as he says that last line, a grin spreads across his face.

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