September 01, 2015

(AP) - Cody Kessler has started graduate school at Southern California while he finishes his football career.

After nearly five years of drama with the Trojans, the veteran quarterback must already qualify for an advanced degree of some sort.

Kessler begins his third year as the No. 8 Trojans' starter when they open their first season after heavy NCAA sanctions Saturday at the Coliseum against Arkansas State.

Kessler has been an oasis of calm in the storm that perpetually surrounds USC, capably navigating the distractions and challenges of being the highest-profile player in a marquee program stacked with world-class talent.

He has filled up the USC record books while emerging as a stalwart leader who always steps up - even when his coach falters.

"Cody is our leader out there, on and off the field," tailback Tre Madden said. "We have a lot of leaders, but Cody has that respect."

Just last week, Kessler showed off his leadership in support of coach Steve Sarkisian, who apologized and promised to seek treatment after showing up drunk at a large pep rally. Speaking alongside fellow captain Su'a Cravens, Kessler expressed the players' disappointment in Sarkisian, but also their strong faith in his ability to do his job.

"We're ready to just get back to football," he said. "Coach Sark is the guy we want coaching us, and there's no one else in the country we want as our head coach."

USC has made four head coaching changes since Pete Carroll's staff initially recruited Kessler. The Bakersfield product spent two years watching behind Matt Barkley before winning a stiff competition with Max Wittek for the starting job in 2013.

Through it all, Kessler has improved and excelled, evolving from a question mark to an exclamation point.

He threw a USC-record 39 touchdown passes with just five interceptions last season, setting six school records overall and compiling the highest completion percentage in team history - no small feat at a school with a spectacular history of starting quarterbacks, including two Heisman Trophy winners in this century.

Sarkisian believes Kessler could be even better this year with five experienced starters returning on USC's offensive line.

Kessler's top target will most likely be JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was a 2014 freshman All-America and had 724 receiving yards - second to first-round draft pick Nelson Agholor - to go with five touchdowns. Madden missed most of last year with an injury and will look to step in for 1,000-yard rusher Javorius Allen, who also left for the NFL.

Kessler benefits from deep bonds with Sarkisian and offensive coordinator Clay Helton. Sarkisian desperately tried to recruit Kessler to Washington nearly five years ago, only to lose him to the Trojans after a last-minute call from Helton when former USC coach Lane Kiffin decided to sign two quarterbacks.

Sarkisian kept Helton on his staff when he succeeded Kiffin. With Helton calling the Trojans' plays this fall, he expects another banner year for a player he feels he has "been with" for seven years, ever since the recruiting process began.

"You've got a coach on the field," Helton said. "It's like he's reading my mind. He knows whether it's myself or Coach Sark calling the play, he understands exactly what we want and exactly why we're calling the play. Every time you have a fifth-year senior, it's beneficial for you as a play-caller and as an offensive coordinator."

Helton played at Houston two decades ago and is one of four former quarterbacks on USC's staff. Tennessee's Tee Martin, Washington's Marques Tuiasosopo and Brigham Young's Sarkisian have all provided insight and perspective to Kessler over the past two seasons.

"Everyone feels that camaraderie," Kessler said. "Everyone feels together as a team. This team has really come together through everything, and it's been really cool to see."

Arkansas State went 7-6 overall and 5-3 in the Sun Belt last year for its fourth straight winning season and bowl appearance.

The Red Wolves return nine starters to an offense that set school records in total yards (6,194), yards per game (476.5), points (477) and TDs (60).

Topping the list of returnees is dual-threat quarterback Fredi Knighten, who threw for 3,277 yards and 24 touchdowns to go with 779 yards and 11 scores on the ground. Top rusher Michael Gordon is also back after compiling 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns last year.

Knighten completed over 62 percent of his passes and has his three top wideouts coming back: Tres Houston, Dijon Paschal and J.D. McKissic, who all had over 620 receiving yards. McKissic's school-record 237 catches are the most among all active players.

Arkansas State had dropped 18 consecutive regular-season matchups against top 25 teams from 1996-2012 before beating No. 25 Kent State 17-13 in the 2013 GoDaddy Bowl in its most recent game against a ranked opponent.

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